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InPsych 2013 | Vol 35

October | Issue 5

Psychology in current issues

Sexting among minors: The potential for harm

The APS recently provided a submission to the 2013 Senate Inquiry into options for addressing the issue of sexting by minors, which was established in the context of an examination of cyber bullying among young people. The term 'sexting' refers to the creation and transmission of sexual messages, photos or videos via the internet, mobile phones or other electronic devices. Sexting by minors raises some specific concerns that do not apply in the adult context, including the potential for child pornography offences, the heightened peer pressure on young people to participate in sexting, and the lasting impact of young people’s loss of control over private images. The APS submission particularly sought to highlight psychological aspects of this issue to inform the Inquiry’s considerations, report and recommendations. The final report of the Inquiry was released in August 2013 and contained a number of references to the APS submission. This article is an edited extract from the APS submission.

The lack of a precise definition for ‘sexting’ is a source of considerable confusion, with the term often used loosely by adults to cover a broad range of activities of varying degrees of potential harm to young people. In addition, the limited research that is available suggests that the term ‘sexting’ is not used by young people to describe the taking and sending of sexually explicit images (Albury, Crawford, Byron & Mathews, 2013). This highlights an important disconnect between the perceptions of young people and the adults who seek to protect them from harm and risks associated with digital communication.

Underpinning the broad concept of sexting is a number of dimensions that are not easily captured by a single definition. Some important dimensions are: content of the communication; use of the communication; role of the participants; intent of the communication; and age of the participants. Because of the multiplicity of factors involved in sexting, it is imperative that approaches to protecting and minimising harm to young people are able to be flexible and responsive to these dimensions. Simplistic solutions may create policies that are potentially psychologically harmful to young people in other ways.

The potential for harm from sexting

Adolescence is generally viewed as a time of identity formation where young people are developing an interest in relationships, romance and sex, and part of this exploration is an aspiration to be attractive to one’s peers. Young people are also increasingly reliant on the internet and other communication technologies in their everyday lives. While much of the access to digital technology is positive and beneficial, there are concerns regarding the potential for harm. Given that children and young people are still in the process of developing the ability to assess risk and manage the consequences of their decisions, they are particularly vulnerable to the risks of cyber threats and associated technologies.

Risks to privacy and confidentiality

Harm in the form of threats to privacy and confidentiality can be an unfortunate consequence of what was initially sexting in the context of normal adolescent exploratory behaviour and expression of individuality. Once personal information and images have been made available on the internet, they can be very difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Protection of privacy is often overlooked in favour of wanting to stand out to others online (ACMA, 2010), without fully comprehending the long-term consequences of these actions.

As part of adolescence, young people can experience significant pressure to conform to group norms and behaviours, which can now play out in unique ways because of the ‘always on’ nature of smart phones and mobile internet. Young women may feel pressured to produce images for young men and young men may feel pressured to distribute these amongst their friends. This coercion can increase the risk that young people may fail to protect their privacy, with the concomitant potential for harm and regret in the longer term.

Cyber bullying and potential for criminal acts

There is also the potential for intentional harm by others involving non-consensual sending or forwarding of sexually explicit messages or images, where the intention is to cyber bully or harass, or to use the images pornographically. The potential for sexting to move away from sexual exploration and escalate to cyber bullying is a major concern. Bullying has many negative impacts on the victim, including: impaired social and emotional adjustment; poor academic achievement; anxiety, depression and suicidality; poorer physical health; higher absenteeism; and increased loneliness and low self esteem. Emerging evidence suggests that bullying (and potentially cyber bullying) is implicated in the suicide of young people (Gough, 2007).

Young people are not a homogenous group and some researchers and practitioners have highlighted the particular vulnerabilities faced by young people who already experience life difficulties and are marginalised. There is potential for disproportionate harm to children and young people with disabilities or those who are lesbian, gay or trans-gender. In addition, research has shown that media technology and social networking sites are often used as vehicles in the perpetration of gendered sexual violence targeting women (Walker et al., 2013).

If sexting involves abuse in relation to children, there is the potential for this to be considered criminal activity associated with child pornography. Currently, Australian law says that anyone under 18 who is involved in sexting is at risk of being charged under child pornography laws, even if they wanted to do it and felt comfortable about being involved.

Harm to children’s development

Most experts agree that despite their ability to effectively use online technologies, children and young people still need protection from content that exploits their immaturity and could harm their development (Biggens & Handsley, 2000). Examples include material that is sexualised or pornographic, or that which endorses inappropriate behaviours or perpetuates negative stereotypes. Viewing such material may distort children’s ideas about what is normal or age-appropriate, create unrealistic and unhealthy attitudes about the self, others and society in general, and expose them to images or practices that may be unsafe or that they are not developmentally ready for.

Protecting young people from possible harms

It is important that the legal implications surrounding sexting by children and young people do not lead to a solely legal solution to the issue. Informed parenting, school-based practices and educational approaches offer the most productive way forward. However, when the circumstances are extreme, some legal response may be necessary. For example, the implementation of an offence related to harmful digital communication, as used in New Zealand, may be worthy of consideration in Australia.

Education of young people

Involving young people in discussions about cyber safety and how to balance technology, sexuality and privacy is crucial. Young people need to be assisted to be able to identify what constitutes personal information and encouraged to understand the difficulty in controlling or removing content from mobile phones and the internet which can contribute to deeply embarrassing and harmful consequences for them in both the short and long term.

For young people, limiting their access to online technologies can be a helpful cyber safety strategy. Parents and schools need to play an active role in monitoring and boundary setting for young people in relation to cyber safety, but this must be done in conjunction with trusting and respectful relationships.

Role of parents

Parents who provide children with good supervision and who set boundaries, while at the same time granting their children a level of psychological autonomy, enhance the development of protective social skills among their children. A number of parental strategies exist to help protect children from harmful digital communications, including: good communication (explaining why certain material is not appropriate); communication that is not based on fear or punishment (e.g., removal of internet access); active engagement in social networking sites (e.g., parents having their children as ‘friends’ on social networking sites); and setting limits around the use of online technology (e.g., using the internet in sight of parents, charging the phone in the living area) and through technological solutions (e.g., internet security software).

Trust building, education and communication are key cyber safety strategies that can help parents to facilitate open discussion with their children about harmful digital communications. Young people need reassurance and a supportive environment in which they can discuss their problems in an open and non-judgmental manner. Parents need to be encouraged to listen to their children’s concerns without judging, interrupting, panicking or criticising.

Role of schools

The challenge for schools is to embrace new technologies as positive tools for teaching, learning and building relationships whilst at the same time identifying and addressing the safety risks attached to their use. To address cyber safety, schools need to: implement and use an acceptable use internet (cyber safety) policy; monitor students’ online activity and take action against threatening or unsafe online behaviour; increase the skill and confidence of teachers to deal with cyber safety issues; use filters and blocks (without depending upon them); learn the language and interact with young people on their turf; involve parents by disseminating education about use of internet and internet filtering technology; and implement consistent and appropriate techniques for managing peer relationships, such as restorative justice, method of shared concern, and support group approach, with more limited application of punitive approaches.

Addressing cyber bullying should be considered part of a schools' broader approach to developing respectful relationships between students, teaching positive relationship strategies, empathy skills, the importance of bystander intervention and conflict resolution skills.

APS recommendations to the Senate Inquiry
  1. That a common set of definitions of sexting be agreed on throughout Australian jurisdictions, with input from various expert stakeholder groups and young people.
  2. That the multiple dimensions involved in sexting activity be incorporated into definitions of sexting.
  3. That in developing a definition, a clear distinction be made between sexting and child pornography.
  4. That strategies emphasise education and information provision, with children and adolescents being invited to take part in development and implementation.
  5. That a nationally consistent strategy is developed and agreed on by all jurisdictions to increase community awareness about the risks associated with sexting.
  6. That parents and guardians be supported to undertake open communication with young people about cyber safety.
  7. That schools be required to develop cyber safety policies, in conjunction with young people, and to implement best practice strategies to address cyber safety and bullying.
  8. That teachers and principals be required to undertake education and awareness training about whole-school approaches to bullying of all types, including cyber bullying.
  9. That legislative measures are seen as a last resort to protect against extreme and dangerous practices.
  10. That consideration be given to developing an offence related to harmful digital communication, as implemented in New Zealand, for instances of extreme cyber bullying.

References

  • Albury, K., Crawford, K., Byron, P., & Mathews, B. (2013). Young people and sexting in Australia: Ethics, representation and the law. ARC Centre for Creative Industries and Innovation/Journalism and Media Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.
  • Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). (2010). Trends in media use by children and young people. Retrieved from http://www.acma.gov.au/webwr/_assets/main/lib310665/trends_in_media_use_by_children_and_young_people.pdf
  • Biggins, B. & Handsley, E. (2000). Censorship in public libraries. Paper presented to ALIA Conference, Canberra, October 23 2000.
  • Gough, D. (2007, February 4). Every fortnight: A life lost just begun: Special report: Teen suicide, The Age. Retrieved from: http://www.theage.com.au
  • Walker, S., Sanci, L., & Temple-Smith, M. (2013). Sexting: young women's and men's views on its nature and origins. Journal of Adolescent Health, 52, 697-701.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2013. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.