Moral panic tends to be the response to any discussion about online safety and young people.
Commonly, well-intentioned parents and professionals attempting to address the issue of youth sexting are quick to adopt a zero tolerance approach, instead of considering the very real perception among young people that sexting is now a normal part of their social fabric.
These same adults are also inclined to insist that the practice of sexting is unwise and, as such, blame the victim when their privacy is violated via a non-consensual distribution of their intimate image.
Put simply: Many of us continue to chastise the person who produced the image, rather than reprimand, or hold accountable, the person who chose to violate someone else’s privacy by sharing the material without their consent.
Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages, photographs, or videos (including nudes and nearly nude selfies) online or via a mobile phone. Socially, sexting is increasingly considered an acceptable, if not pleasurable, means of exploring and expressing one’s sexuality.
It is also considered safe when one’s expectations of privacy are adhered to by the recipient of the image. Legally, sexting between two consenting adults is not inherently problematic, provided the the images shared involve people 18 years or over, the images shared are not further distributed without the sender’s consent and does not involve threat, harassment, or blackmail.
So what does this mean for young people who engage in sexting?
1. There are laws.
According to Federal law, any person under the age of 18 cannot legally agree to sexting. When sexting involves someone under the age of 18, it may be classified as ‘child pornography’. Child pornography is any sexually explicit or sexually suggestive image of a young person, or an image of a young person who is in the presence of someone who is performing a sexual act or pose. This includes both pictures and videos. It is also illegal to ask for, produce or keep child pornography, people of any age. It's also illegal to send, post, or distribute (in any way) images which constitute child pornography.
2. Young people are doing it
Many teenagers perceive sexting to be a relatively safe, socially acceptable ‘norm’. In one study conducted by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University (2018), approximately one third of Australian students in years 10 to 12 reported recent sexting activity, most commonly with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or friend. Just over half the sample (6327 students from Government, Catholic and Independent schools, across all Australian jurisdictions) indicated they had received a sexually explicit written text message, with slightly less than half of the students having received a sexually explicit nude/nearly nude photo or video of someone else (44 per cent). One third of these students, reported having sent a sexually explicit nude/nearly nude photo or video of themselves to someone else.
3. There are risks and rewards
Invariably, those who engage in sexting report doing so for various positive outcomes, including increased self-esteem, self-confidence, and a greater sense of sexual attractiveness. People also report the fun associated with such flirty exchanges, the joy they experience in giving someone a “sexy” gift, as well as the connection two people can feel through the sharing of such intimate images.
Material shared through sexting may be vulnerable to being classified as image-based abuse if they are distributed without the consent of those pictured. Abuse of this nature has the capacity to cause untold harm, humiliation and anxiety to those who have been violated. Of course, young people are not immune to image-based abuse. They face the additional risk of being charged under criminal law.
4. Zero tolerance doesn't work
Abstinence from sharing any private content with others via new communication technologies is totally unrealistic for most people, and especially for young people. Instead, we need to take a harm reduction approach and acknowledge that, despite any potential risks associated with youth sexting, many young people will continue to engage with their peers in this way. They do this for many of the same reasons that adults do – interpersonal intimacy, fun, flirtation, connection, sexual expression or exploration.
The answer is education. We need to teach our children to be critical consumers of technology, discerning of their peers, savvy about their private digital content, and clear that those with whom they chose to share themselves have the same standards of interpersonal trust.
The risks associated with sexting, for people of all ages, are less about the technology and more about our humanity. We must not over-complicate this. Whilst we need to be mindful of the law, we must also be acutely aware of the need to be kind and decent people. Arm your children with harm reduction messages and inspire them to respect the principles of trust, privacy, and consent.
Dr Tessa Opie is the President of the Society of Australian Sexologists (SA/NT branch) and founder of in your skin - an organisation which provides relationships and sexuality education.
The Hunting premieres on Thursday, 1 August 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.au, or in an emergency dial 000. Parents and teachers looking for more information can visit the eSafety Commissioner website and SBS Learn.