• Jessie Tu writes about the steps parents and teachers can take to better understand the new ways teenagers are communicating. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
For parents, navigating sex and the internet can be an anxiety-inducing terrain because they are often less technology-literate than the kids.
Jessie Tu

15 Jul 2019 - 9:43 AM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2019 - 11:29 AM

One evening, a few years ago, an expert came to speak to parents about pornography use among teenage boys. I was one of a handful of female teachers at the elite boys’ school in Sydney.

The presenter shared findings about the sexualised environment young teenage boys were growing up in. Some of the statistics left me shocked — for instance, the study which found that more than 50 per cent of boys aged 14-18 access pornography daily. I sat there feeling deeply uncomfortable, aware that despite my discomfort, this was something I needed to understand, in order to be the best teacher I could be. I had to educate myself about the changing social environment and I had a duty of care to promote and maintain my students’ wellbeing. 

This included knowing about the prevailing issue of sending nudes (or sexting) among young people today. Sexting, according to standard definition is the sharing of sexualised or explicit images or texts through the internet of things - devices, emails, apps etc, regardless of consent.

Our digitised lives are creating new concerns as technology alters our interactions with each other.

Our digitised lives are creating new concerns as technology alters our interactions with each other. Jia Tolentino expresses it brilliantly in her forthcoming collection of essays ‘Trick Mirror’ where she explains that our existence requires us to have an online presence. We need to be there or we will be left behind. This pressure has extended to our need for online expression and includes the interactions we have in our personal relationships. For teachers and parents, as young people are navigating this space in their adolescent years, it can be an anxiety-inducing terrain because we’re often less technology-literate than these kids. 

What is the nature of this eco-system of accountability and what can teachers do to mitigate the risks of such behaviour? There’s no point in debating whether sending nudes is a parental or education issue. It’s both. This issue has historically been subjugated underneath the banner of ‘bullying’ conferences, but it is a growing concern that deserves its own platform.

Current figures are concerning. A survey conducted by University of Sydney found that 38 per cent of people aged 13 to 15, 50 per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds said they had sent a sexual picture or video. Remember though, these are self-reporting figures. 

Since I began teaching over 10 years ago, a question has been dangled over my head by school leaders and principals —‘How do we prepare our students for a world which we ourselves cannot yet see?’

Visibility, identity and self-promotion are becoming inextricable to the lives of our students. When it comes to sharing explicit materials among them, it is our responsibility to emphasis prevention and make them aware of the social and legal risks and harms.

Awkward as it may be, teachers are often not equipped with the necessary tools ourselves to know how to talk about these sensitive subject matters.

In order to optimise learning, a young person needs to be of sound mind - and a sound mind encompasses a young person’s whole being, which includes their sexual wellbeing. Awkward as it may be, teachers are often not equipped with the necessary tools ourselves to know how to talk about these sensitive subject matters.

Conversations in this field might be awkward because consensual relationships and what happens between two people is not the business of anyone outside of the relationship. However, when considering the age of these parties, and the circumstances, there might be degrees of external input that might mitigate harm or damage to one or either parties involved.

Since 2008, I’ve taught primarily in single-sex independent schools. My observations have been formed by my experiences, which some might be considered narrow, considering these schools have been wealthy, mostly white, and where all students, regardless of year group, have had in their possession their own personal phones.

I’ve noticed that girls seemed to be more attached to their phones during lunchtime and recesses.

Boys used their phones too, but they seemed to be much more physically active during the times outside the classroom. I noticed also that girls tended to use their phones to communicate to their friends, or access information, whereas boys were on it for Fortnight, or other apps.

I’ve noticed that girls seemed to be more attached to their phones during lunchtime and recess.

Broader collaborations and more transparency between teachers, parents, child experts, and law enforcement are needed to clarify strategies of mitigation and management. The social, legal and pedagogical responses must have equal weight and solutions must be taken seriously. And we must do this in a way that does not compromise the sexual agency of a teenager.

Victoria’s Department of Education and Training provides information and guidelines on how to combat this issue. In 2013, they released a 23-page online Education and Resources Pack for teachers titled ‘Respect me - Don’t Sext Me’, a joint initiative between various Victorian health, education and legal agencies. These clear guidelines should be implemented nation-wide, because they promote an open, transparent line of accountability across school and community. Recently, the Victorian Government extended their actions to ban all mobile phones in schools. 

Ten years ago, NSW Government launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue, sending out fact sheets to all schools, though there remains nothing set in the curriculum to address sexting. Last November, a spokeswoman from the NSW Department of Education said they are working on a review that ‘aims to identify strategies and techniques that can equip students to use devices in more informed, responsible and safer ways.’ The Australian Government’s eSafety Commissioner has fact sheets and suggestions for classroom activities to address this issue. 

Each school deals with this issue differently. Each school has a cohort of different students, with diverse and varied backgrounds and experiences. So though sexting is something that looks on the outside something that is largely unregulated, it’s also something that cannot really be strictly regulated. It’s a case by case basis upon which these incidents are dealt with and handled.

One thing schools can do is create education programs that are safe spaces for students to understand the privacy and pornography laws state by state, and to encourage open debate about the potential risks and consequences of such behaviour. Implementation of safe policies that set clear guidelines can be a healthy and progressive step in the right direction. And open discussions about sensitive issues must be approached in a careful, measured way.

Jessie Tu is a freelance writer. You can follow Jessie on Twitter @jess_tu2.

The Hunting premieres on Thursday, August 1 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand, and airs over four weeks.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800737732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.auFor parents and teachers looking for more information can visit the eSafety Commissioner website and SBS Learn.

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