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How to teach safe sexting

Sexting has become ordinary practice for the majority of teens. Should we be teaching them how to do it safely?

The 7th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health gave the alarming statistic that 86 percent of teens surveyed had sent or received sexually explicit images. Many of them consider sexting a normal part of their relationships, an activity some engage in even prior to their first kiss or relationship.

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Ther survey reported that “teens often suggest that sexting is a good way to build intimacy in a committed relationship and to maintain connection with their romantic partner over distance (or during homework).”

However, when you look closer at the data, 86.3 percent of the 6841 young Australians aged 14 to18 years surveyed had received sexts, while only 70.6 percent sent them. This implies that some images are being passed onto more than one recipient, probably without the sender’s knowledge.

Giselle Woodley and Lelia Green are researchers at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and ran a qualitative ARC-funded study whose results have helped explain some of the ASSSH survey findings. Woodley is a PhD candidate and sexologist, while Green is a Professor with a research focus on the online lives of young people.

Why abstinence doesn’t work

Abstinence, or ‘just say no’ is a commonly held educational maxim, once trotted out for sexual activity in general, and now used as a blunt weapon against online sexual behaviours.

“We are currently in the era of abstinence-based approaches to sexting, where the main and sometimes only message teens receive in regards to sexting is ‘Don’t’,” explains Woodley and Green.

However, with such high numbers of teens saying they are involved in sexting, pretending it doesn’t exist by preaching abstinence is potentially dangerous. Woodley and Green say instead, with children as young as 10 to 13 when they have their first experience of sexting, education in the classroom should be for harm minimisation.

“Given abstinence education is not working, we seek alternative approaches that are balanced and respond to the actualities of teen behaviours. Prohibition-only approaches can also prevent teens from approaching parents and other trusted adults if something does go wrong when engaging in sexting.”

“Some children interviewed were not aware of what they were viewing and encountered sexual content firstly through cyberflashing. In those cases the interactions could be shocking and difficult to make sense of for young people,” they explain.

“Although children learned from such encounters and shared information and experiences with friends, it would be useful to start educating children that they should not see such pictures without agreeing to receive them. Education can include knowing how to report, block and delete such images. Teen participants wished they had been prepared to know what sexual content was and what to expect before they first encountered it on their phones.” Giselle Woodley and Lelia Green

How to teach when you don’t want to

Most of today’s teachers grew up in a very different world, without digital cameras and mobile phones, where the worst you could do in the bedroom was probably with an old polaroid camera. This generation might find the idea of sexting shocking, and struggle with the idea of it ever being ‘ordinary practice’. How then, can we expect teachers to reconcile their own views with the expectation that they teach safe sexting in the classroom?

“Acknowledging that it is tough for us as older generations who did not grow up in such circumstances and being open to positive aspects of communication is a great way to build trust”, says Woodley and Green. “Asking questions rather than dictating expected behaviours is a good way to start, and maintaining an open-mind and being curious is important.”

While there are specialised health teachers, sexting is a topic that may come up at any time, along with respect, online safety and other issues. It’s something teachers should be prepared for, and conversations with students should be open and ongoing.

“Focus on skills and lessons that can assist safe sexting such as building mutual respect for one another, learning about consent and teaching it is ok to not send an image if they do not want to,” explain Green and Woodley. “No teen should ever feel pressured to sext and teens should be encouraged to support each other in walking away from, blocking, or sending an anodyne image (e.g. a cat or a naked mole-rat) to anyone who is pressurising such communications.”

Understanding the laws

While in most Australian states and territories it is legal to have sex when you are 16, you must be over 18 to legally sext. Sending or receiving underage sexual images technically constitutes child sexual abuse material or the creation of child pornography, and Green and Woodley warn that in some states, it can even be illegal to own a naked photo of yourself underage, even if that photo is never sent on to anyone.

Green is quick to point out, though, that: “the prohibition on under-18s sexting on the grounds that they are, by doing so, creating child sexual abuse material is a classic example of victim blaming. Children who sext with same-aged romantic partners are sharing images of themselves with other people in (what they believe /hope is) a reciprocal context. They are not creating child sexual abuse material and it is predatory adults who construct sexts by under-18s as child sexual abuse material and monetise and otherwise exploit them.”

While children should not be punished for the behaviour of adult predators, it is still important that they understand the consequences of taking, owning and sharing images of underaged children. Moreover, as the statistics shared earlier show, students need to understand that sharing an image with one person, can sometimes, unknowingly, mean sharing it with many more.

Teens need to be taught how to sext safely and respectfully, how to be prepared for unwanted sexts and the risk involved in sending and receiving sexual images. Conversations with children around sexting should be open and non-shaming. Most importantly, they should be conversations, not blanket statements about abstinence and avoidance.

 

Learn more about the study here: ECU | Adolescents’ perceptions of harm from accessing online content : Communication, Media and Cultural Studies : Research and creative activity : Arts and Humanities : Schools

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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