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Dublin: 10°C Thursday 11 August 2022

Column: Children don't understand the consequences of sexting

Children as young as 10 have engaged in ‘sexting’ – sending explicit images or texts to another person — but they are distanced from the reality of what they are doing, writes Dr Maureen Griffin.

Dr Maureen Griffin

‘SEXTING’ OR ‘sex texting’ refers to sending sexually explicit images or videos via digital means. Some definitions of sexting also include text messages, but for the purpose of this article we will focus on images/videos. Primarily such ‘sexts’ are sent using mobile phones and/or social messaging applications such as Snapchat, Viber and WhatsApp.

Celebrity cases of sexting have dominated the media in recent years (eg, Disney star Vanessa Hudgens & X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos) setting a culture, particularly for young girls, where sexting is seen as the norm, even somewhat cool.

Scale of the problem

From my experience in visiting over 300 schools across Ireland, Irish children are very aware of the phenomenon of sexting. Consistent with international research from Australia, USA and the UK, I have been made aware of cases in Ireland where children as young as 10 years of age have engaged in sexting.

As part of independent research conducted for a number of secondary schools in Ireland, 1 in 4 students admitted to sending or receiving sexts. Although the practice was most common amongst 3rd year students, it was observed from students in 1st year to Leaving Certificate. These findings are consistent with research by the NSPCC which reported that up to 40 per cent of young people have engaged in sexting.

Why do people engage in sexting?

There are numerous reasons young people sext. From speaking with students across Ireland some of the main reasons offered include:

  • To construct their sexual identity online (when posted publicly on their own profile);
  • Due to pressure from a boyfriend/girlfriend or as a means of demonstrating commitment in a relationship – can be viewed as a ‘relationship currency’;
  • Imitating famous people they may follow on sites such as Twitter or Instagram etc – the ‘sexualisation of culture’;
  • To show off or get attention (eg, ‘selfies’ or ‘belfies’);
  • To entice someone or flirt;
  • Groomed by an adult;
  • Due to exposure to pornography online, where such images become normalised and thus contribute to the sharing or demanding of self-generated images.

What are the risks involved?

Individuals that send sexts, be they adult or under 18, are distanced from the reality of what they are doing. I believe that individuals who send sexts would never take the picture with an ordinary camera, have the picture developed and then hand the picture to the individual they wish to share the material with.

Unfortunately, once material is sent via mobile or online, the individual loses control of that information. Pictures may be distributed beyond the intended recipients either online or through mobile phone. A recent study by the Internet Watch Foundation showed that up to 88 per cent of self-generated images have been collected and put onto other sites.

Sending sexts also increases the young person’s risk of victimisation (ie cyberbullying) where the young person can be harassed, intimidated even blackmailed for sending such material. Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and in extreme cases suicide (eg Jessie Logan) can result.

Depending on the age of the individual/s depicted in the sext, under Irish Law, ‘Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998’, the sext can constitute child pornography.

So, how should parents/guardians/teachers respond if a young person has engaged in sexting?

It is important to speak with young people about sexting before an issue arises.

  • Remind young people that once an image is sent, they lose control of that material – it can be forwarded on to others, copied, edited, printed out etc;
  • Discuss the peer-pressure related to sending sexts;
  • Explain the consequences – both legal and psychological. Explain that sending sexts can harm their dignity and reputation and affect job and college prospects;
  • Use case examples that the young person can relate to (eg the case of Jessica Logan in Cincinnati, Ohio, the film ‘Sexting in Suburbia’, 2012, PG-13 and the MTV series ‘Sexting in America: When Privates go Public’, R13)

What to do if a young person has sent a sext:

  • As indicated above the reason people send ‘sexts’ differ, therefore it is important to find out why this message was sent – was it within a romantic relationship, was it sent impulsively, was it sent out of revenge after a relationship ended, was the young person forced?;
  • Depending on the reason the message was sent and the age/s of the individual/s involved the Gardaí may need to be notified (ie in the case of an adult forcing a minor);
  • If the recipient of the message is a friend of the young person, the young person should ask them, in person, to delete the message;
  • If the message has been sent online, contact the website to have the image removed;
  • Support the young person as they deal with the psychological effects of knowing their image is ‘out there’.

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What to do if a young person has received a sext:

  • Commend the young person for coming forward and telling you about it – they have done the right thing;
  • If possible establish who sent the message – a friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, stranger;
  • Depending on the age/s of the individual/s involved the Gardaí may need to be notified (ie in the case of an adult sending material to a minor);
  • If the sender is a stranger to the young person, tell the young person not to respond to the sender as this may encourage future sexts. Encourage the child to block the number from their phone to avoid receiving further unwanted messages. You can report sexually explicit and/or distressing pictures you receive on your phone to, an anonymous facility run by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland.
  • If the sender is a friend, the young person could talk to them in real life about why they sent the message, making them aware of the risks and informing them that he/she does not want to receive any further sexts;
  • Make sure the young person does not forward the message to anyone else or share it through any other digital means.

For additional information and resources on the issue of sexting, please see:

The UK Safer Internet Centre, which provides advice and guidance to help young people consider the consequences of posting sexting images online and what they can do if they find themselves in a position where they have lost control of their images.

Common Sense Media which offers advice on how to talk to your child about sexting, in addition to resources that can be used by teachers and parents to tackle this issue.

Dr Maureen Griffin holds an honours degree in Applied Psychology, a Masters in Forensic Psychology and a PhD in Applied (Forensic) Psychology (specifically in the area of Sex Offender Assessment). She lectures in the areas of abnormal psychology, mental health and crime, sexual offenders, online internet solicitation and risk assessment on Forensic Psychology, Criminal Behaviour & Criminalistics courses in universities across Ireland, and is the founder and director of Internet Safety for Schools Ireland. Maureen has visited over 300 schools across Ireland speaking with students, staff, BoM members and parents regarding issues around social media, cyber-bullying and internet and mobile phone safety.

Read: Young people urged to consider ‘digital identity’

Read: One in ten students have cyberbullied another

About the author:

Dr Maureen Griffin

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