Sunday 1 February 2015

I was 15 when I texted an intimate photo of myself ... and I so regret it

Gary Gaughan, pictured right, has a warning for teenagers who 'sext' before they think. Chrissie Russell reports

Wearing his jumper, carrying her books, the lovebite; smitten teenagers have always had ways of signalling their infatuation with each other.

But today's flirty behaviour has a sinister side. Thanks to smartphones, many teens are indulging in delivering 'digital hickies', an electronic lovebite that can't be erased with a splash of concealer or roll-necked sweater.

"A digital hickey is a sext," explains Avril Ronan from Trend Micro, a Cork-based global security company that runs free internet safety seminars in schools around the country.

"It's a nude or partially nude picture text sent from a mobile phone. Often the person sending the picture is caught up in the moment, or in love and naively thinks its for one person's eyes only, when the reality is that once they hit send, the image could be out there forever."

A recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that 22pc of teen girls and 20pc of teen boys had engaged in sexting.

Last year research by EU Kids Online suggested it was much less common with just 11pc of young people involved and only 3pc admitting to having sent a sexually explicit text. Admitting being the key word.

"When we go into classrooms everyone nods and says they've seen an example of a digital hickey, but no one ever admits to sending one," says Avril. "It's always 'someone else'."

Interestingly, the EU Kids data revealed that where children had been sent a sexual message, half their parents said they hadn't.

Understandably most parents would rather believe their child is tapping away at Angry Birds on their iPhone rather than sending nude photos, particularly given that the trend seems most common among first- to third-year pupils.

But rather than rush to ban phone or internet use, Avril says it's more important that parents arm themselves with information so they can help guide their children.

"Young people are living in a world of technology where the phone is an extension of their hand," she says.

"Their online world is as real as their offline world and when they send a personal message they think it's a private exchange between them and one other person, they don't think beyond that."

Dr Maureen Griffin, from Internet Safety for Schools Ireland, agrees.

"As adults we need to break down the distance that technology creates by showing children that this image can be forwarded on, printed out or in some cases posted online."

But the rush to send sexually explicit texts is also propelled by the message espoused in the media.

As Dr Griffin explains: "Some students say 'what's the big deal? All the famous people have images like this'."

Irish Independent

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