Whilst technology has given us immeasurable benefits, it has also given rise to many issue that are still not fully understood by the vast majority of technology users. Far too many parents still have the, "It won't happen to my child," attitude and fail to even speak about the more 'awkward' online situations a young person might find themselves in especially sexual ones. Never before have young people been exposed to such a wide range of images and pressures that are not linked to age or developmental stage.
One of the main issues that I have to deal with is the sending, receiving and posting of sexual images by teens AFTER it has gone wrong. Sometimes it is simply due to adolescent naivety, being trusting in a situation an adult would see right through, sometimes it can be as a result of betrayal after a relationship has ended and finally, the more sinister, when the young person has been contacted by and groomed by an online predator. Young people want to be liked, to feel good about themselves and be part of a 'group'. If this means engaging in risky behaviour then many will simply throw good sense out the window as they have always done.
Teaching children about respect & responsibility is vital, especially when it comes to technology use. Respect for themselves and others and the responsible use of technology. The vast majority of young people do this well, but many, often those we least expect will simply not get it. Children are the primary vulnerable population and we must assist children to make good online decisions. Parents, carers and teachers have a very important role to play with providing a safe place where these discussions can take place. I am often asked why children take and send these pictures in the first place? The simple answer is that they want to; the same reason kids do anything.
Starting the conversation early is vital and should occur before a child is given a device. Whilst kids are inherently 'tech savvy', this does not equate to cognitive development. Don't keep the conversations about 'sexting', (by the way kids don’t use this term) or 'naked selfies', until adolescence. It is too late. I regularly deal with students in primary schools that are engaging in this behaviour. Discuss the difference between a cute baby in the bath photo and one where an older child is naked. Ensure young children understand private body parts in relation to touching and photography. This also assists in relation to the reporting of sexual abuse. If young people don’t know something is wrong, then they wont tell if it happens. Let them know that it's OK to say no, that they can come to you regardless and you will help them. Just as we prepare our children to be safe in the real world, the same must occur online.
When I work with primary students I talk about ‘yes’ photos and ‘no’ photos. This is an easy way to start these conversations in a non-threatening or scary way. A yes photo is one that could be taken on the street outside your house whilst a no photo is one that could not be taken in public. Let children know that if they are either asked for a pic or sent one that is clearly a ‘no’ picture that they must come to you and let you know. Fear of getting into trouble is a significant barrier to telling for many young people.
During the teenage years, children are maturing and developing physically and psychologically and will be developing a romantic interest in others. They will have moved into the secondary school environment and desperately want to fit in. The pressure to engage in this behaviour is now increasing dramatically, from peers and also from popular culture. Talk to your children about respect for self and others; ensure they understand consent and most importantly, that if things go wrong; they can come to you regardless. Once intimate images have been taken and shared, even in trust, the harsh reality is that this trust is often betrayed.
Just recently we have seen the fall out after a video of a sexual assault (abhorrent) was posted online and then shared amongst a group of Sydney schoolboys all of whom could be facing serious criminal charges for possessing child abuse material. Not one boy came forward and spoke up! This is extremely concerning in that it illustrates the ‘normalisation’ of this behaviour amongst some teens. Every week I have young girls seeking advice after feeling pressured to take and send nudes or seeking advice when the images have been shared with others without their permission.
Many young boys think it is acceptable behaviour to harass girls for nudes or send multiple ‘dick pics’ in an attempt to elicit a nude back. When challenged, boys will often say it’s a bit of harmless ‘banter!’
Accepting that not all teens take this view, it is vital that parents take the time to talk to their sons and daughters about this topic. Let them know it is OK to say no and that regardless of whether they think sharing nudes is a good idea or not, you need to explain the potentially serious criminal charges that can be laid. A naked or sexually explicit image or video of a person under 18 years fits within our child pornography or child abuse images legislation. Kids need to know that permission is not a mitigating factor; you cannot give yourself or others permission to break the law. Laws are slow to change and whilst I support developing alternative laws for use when young people are involved in consensual sharing, Victoria is the only state to have done so. Talk early and talk often! Be aware and be involved. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!
Susan is Australia's leading Cybersafety expert and she is the author of the best selling book, “Sexts Texts & Selfies” (Penguin) - How to keep your child safe in the digital space. More information is available via her website www.cybersafetysolutions.com.au