There’s likely not a school across Australia (and much further afield) that hasn’t had to deal with sexting. Increasingly, Youth Wellbeing Project is asked to provide advice or deliver education to young people about sending or asking for nudes; and consistently, it’s ‘easier’ for schools to address sexting rather than dealing with a primary driver – pornography. 

There are 3 key reasons why education about sending nudes (child exploitation material) is vitally important.

  1. Young people (primarily girls), feel pressured and most don’t want to send or receive sexts
  2. Those creating and sharing sexual content online includes children under the age of 10 years old
  3. Sextortion is becoming increasingly common, including amongst very young children
FEELING PRESSURED

A 2016 study by Plan International Australia and Our Watch found that young women aged 15-19 do not want to share sexual photos of themselves online, and 81% believe it’s unacceptable for boyfriends to ask for explicit content, even though they believe pressure is common. Another study found that offline sexual coercion showed significant relationships to the sending and requesting of naked images, as well as receiving unsolicited naked images.

YOUTH-PRODUCED SEXUAL CONTENT INVOLVES VERY YOUNG CHILDREN

According to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), when young people upload nudes online it’s referred to as youth-produced sexual content: “Nude or semi-nude images or videos produced by a young person of themselves engaging in erotic or sexual activity and intentionally shared by any electronic means”. This particular 3-month IWF study did not measure the motivations or level of coercion amongst young people in creating and distributing sexual content, if young people had given permission, or whether the young people were in all cases aware that a permanent recording of their activity was being made. However, the research was able to determine who was uploading youth-produced sexual content online.

With this framing, here’s what we need to know about uploaded images of those aged 15 and under:

  • 93% of this form of child exploitation material is of females
  • 86% is uploaded from a laptop/webcam and 8.5% via a mobile phone
  • 43% of these images are of children under the age of 10

In this study, it’s unclear as to the overall percentage of children and young people who have uploaded youth-produced sexual content. However, the fact that just under half of the images assessed were of kids under the age of 10, indicates that we absolutely MUST increase education about this amongst parents and address it within primary school classrooms.

SEXTORTION

Sextortion is threatening to share sexually explicit photos without consent if a person doesn’t agree to certain demands, such as sexual favors or money, and according to a new study, 5% of teenagers are targets of this cybercrime – an additional 3% are likely to have done it to others. Another study by THORN found that 2 in 3 victims of sextortion were female and threatened under the age of 16. Alarmingly, 1 in 4 sextortion incidents happened to kids 12 and younger, with 60% of this age bracket meeting their extortionists online. THORN found that young men are also being threatened, though more frequently for money than females who are more likely to be targeted for additional explicit images/videos.

REPORTING THESE INCIDENTS

Feeling pressured to sext, uploaded youth-produced sexual content, and sextortion are three separate issues. However, all put children and young people at significant risk of further harm including bullying, mental health issues, contact sexual abuse, social ramifications amongst peers, and legal repercussions. In Australia, sharing sexual images without consent is called image-based abuse. If the image is of someone under the age of 18, it is also Child Exploitation Material (often incorrectly referred to as child pornography), and each state and country has varying ways of addressing this via the law.

According to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, they can help with the removal of intimate images or videos, and in some cases, take action against the person who shared intimate images or videos without the consent of the person in the images. A wide range of people can make a report, including the person in the intimate image or video, a person authorised by the person in the intimate image or video to make a report on their behalf, or a parent or guardian on behalf of a child who is under 16. In New Zealand, similar reporting options are available through Netsafe, and in Canada, there’s great info at Need Help Now and reporting is done through Cybertip.

RESPONDING WITHIN SCHOOLS

In a legal article by Corney & Lind, tips for how schools should respond include:

  • Consider the needs of the abused student – counselling and support, referrals to support networks (including the Office of the eSafety Commissioner – or the relevant reporting site to your country).
  • Consider your mandatory reporting obligations
  • When undertaking investigations:
    • Don’t prejudice police investigations – take their advice first
    • Don’t keep images that are Child Exploitation Material
    • Separate your role from law enforcement (management of the school, educating the students and fulfilling your duty of care – not the investigation of criminal behaviour)
    • Keep accurate notes (you may be a witness)
    • Be fair and unbiased when collecting evidence
  • Deal with the young person engaging in Harmful Sexual Behaviours – apply your discipline/bullying policies
  • Exert your influence over the young person engaging in Harmful Sexual Behaviours /parents to have online content removed
  • When preparing Media Statements:
    • Remember your own Privacy and Confidentiality obligations
    • Never identify a victim publicly (expressly or by implication) (other than to law enforcement authorities or by consent of the victim)
    • Never identify a child offender publicly (and note that identifying an offender may also identify the victim)
    • Take advice from a team in serious instances (PR, Legal, Medical etc)

Further helpful information is provided in this article, including criminal code information, duty of care obligations, and reporting obligations (for Queensland).

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Increasingly, it is being advised by experts to move away from words such as ‘offender’ and ‘perpetrator’ when dealing with a minor, and instead, refer to the young person as one who is engaging in Harmful Sexual Behaviours. The above list has been amended to reflect this new terminology. Also, it is recommended that beyond disciplinary action, a young person needs education (often through counselling or group work) in order to understand why their behaviour is problematic.

PREVENTING THESE INCIDENTS

It’s not helpful to only rely upon ‘laying down the law’ with sexting, and hope that young people will respond positively. Nor is it helpful to place the weight of responsibility on young women without helping young men realise that it’s not okay to pressure someone for anything, ever.

Through education, we need to provide young people with a Critical Analysis of what is going on in culture. Hypersexualised media and pornography have normalised pornography and explicit imagery to such a degree that many young people are not understanding what is so problematic about taking, sharing or pressuring someone to photograph or film themselves. The toxic culture that children and young people are immersed in means that there are more people (both minors and adults), exhibiting predatory or harmful sexual behaviours and coercing kids to share child exploitation material. The prevalence and ease of access to pornography can also mean that if a sexual assault is witnessed and / or videod, those viewing it may not recognise it as sexual assault or rape. Pornography teaches young men to have sexual entitlement, and young women to not even recognise their experiences as sexual assault.

Both teens and younger children clearly need help, which is why we need to have educational conversations with kids much earlier than most adults feel comfortable with. Yet to push through this discomfort means that we have to provide children with knowledge that will safeguard them. To ignore the role of pornography in normalising sexting is a massive oversight, and it’s clear that schools need assistance.

To respond to this issue of child protection, in 2019 Youth Wellbeing Project is releasing COMPASS IQ for children under 12 – Safeguarding Kids from Cultural and Sexual Harms. Educators will receive online training and comprehensive lesson plans informed by educational frameworks, social theories and relevant research, with face-to-face training available upon request. Students will gain critical and self-awareness skills to make informed decisions to confidently navigate hypersexualised culture and other 21st century challenges.

The IQ programs teach children Protective Behaviours that extend to their online world. With the new Child Safe Organisations National Principles releasing by the Australian Human Rights Commission as part of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, it’s never been more important for schools to proactively safeguard children through comprehensive education.

Liz Walker

Author Liz Walker

Sexuality & pornography educator and advocate. Liz provides consultancy, schools education & presentations, and is sought after internationally.

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