The online world of social media is the domain of both the young and not-so-young these days, with instant communications facilitated by what is now aptly called ‘The Internet of Everything’.
Social media platforms such as:
And even professional networks such as LinkedIn are now some of the communications and instant messaging modes of choice for everyone.
Social Media has made the Internet is cross-generational
Social media has officially succeeded in turning the Internet ‘cross-generational’. Many doubted we’d achieve our goal of global government. Even industry experts had their doubts. But now, everyone; from school-aged children and even younger to teenagers – right through to young and older professionals – are networking amongst themselves.
But, while cyberspace enhances and promotes communications (mostly for the better) it has also thrown up some problems and risks. Not least of all due to the ‘sexting’ phenomenon, and the dark, cruel world of cyberbullying.
The Sexting Phenomenon
Sexting is a hot button issue here in Australia, affecting those of the younger generation who are avid ‘sexters’ and particularly their parents and families.
To define it simply, sexting involves the sending of sexual photos or videos via mobiles or online posts. While national and state laws in Australia vary, the fact is that sexting can be a crime and can even result in a person being sent to jail.
In fact, if you have a naked, or even a partially naked photo of someone under 18 years of age on your phone or computer, you could be guilty of a criminal offence.
While sexting in the overwhelming number of cases seems to involve two people willingly and knowingly – and with mutual consent – sending their more risqué photos to each other, that’s not always the case. It can also be a major issue if the person sexting is under the age of 18, regardless of whether the photos are solicited or unsolicited.
A recent study of sexting, however, seems to cast doubt on any perceptions that teenagers in Australia may be just sending off pictures or videos – unsolicited – from their smartphones (or online) to anyone they choose. It appears that perception is misplaced.
University of Sydney’s Sexting Study
In fact, a study on sexting by the University of Sydney reveals that sexting unsolicited images from their smartphones (or online) is not normally the case amongst our younger generation.
According to the survey of 1,400 teenagers, only a small minority reported sending an image on to a third party without consent. The rest of the ‘sexts’ were within so-called romantic relationships – in other words, between girlfriends and boyfriends.
The study was led by Dr Murray Lee, an Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Sydney, who says the majority of teenagers confine their sexting to ‘romantic’ relationships.
It also seems that sexting starts at a very young age.
According to the study, a significant proportion of young people have sent a sexual image of themselves by the time they are 13-15 years old, although some 61% of 13-18 year olds who have sexted did so with one person or less in the past 12 months.
“Most sexting by young people takes place in the context of a romantic relationship,” said Dr Lee.
“Only very small numbers of girls report being coerced or pressured into sending an image, even though the perception amongst young people is that pressure is a strong motivator. Rather, most report they sext to be ‘fun and flirty’, ‘as a sexy present’, or ‘to feel sexy and confident’.”
Key findings of the University of Sydney report include:
• Some 47% of those surveyed have sent or received a sext
• Just under 40% of 13-15 year olds have sent a sexual image
• 50% of 16-18 year olds have sent a sexual video
• Males overall were likely to send to more sexting partners than females
• Males aged 13-15 were most likely to have sent images and videos to more than five people
According to Dr Lee, the study has a number of significant implications for policymakers, and he says that education campaigns must be nuanced enough to recognise that most sexting occurs safely within relationships. “Abstinence messages are unlikely to be successful, while there is a need for the development of sexual ethics around sexting.”
While the issue of sexting has been the subject of research by various organisations, including the University of Sydney, sexting has also grabbed the attention of our national government in Canberra, as well as the State and Territory Governments and other organisations concerned with ensuring the online safety of children and young people.
Sexting, Resources and The Law
So, for families – including parents and their teenage sexters – there are a number of reputable sources of information about sexting, and other issues like cyberbullying, and how they relate to current laws.
Cybersmart – a national cybersafety and cybersecurity education program managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), as part of the Australian Government’s commitment to cybersafety – has been set up with the express aim of supporting and encouraging participation in the digital economy by providing information and education which empowers children to be safe online.
The website also publishes a Sexting Guide as part of the parents’ guide to online safety brochure.
At a State level, two years ago the New South Wales organisation Lawstuff, in partnership with Children’s Legal Services of Legal Aid NSW launched a project – New Voices/New laws – to give young people meaningful information about the laws that can apply to sexting and cyber bullying, and to survey their opinions on the fairness of these laws.
Young people surveyed for the project said at the time that they wanted and needed education about the laws that apply to their use of mobile phones and the internet.
Although they agreed that cyber bullying and sexting should be against the law, they also believed that there should be a more appropriate range of responses and penalties available, than were available at that time.
Those teenagers surveyed also said they felt that sharing nude or sexy photos of a person without their permission was much worse than exchanging those photos where there was consent, and that the law should treat these situations differently.
Whichever way you look at it, sexting is more than a passing fad and a well entrenched activity amongst our very young and not so young.
But, be aware that anyone sexting may be committing an offence if the photos, videos or images are of someone under 18-years of age.