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.
"I've spoken to students from over 100 schools across Ireland and shockingly everyone who has sent a sex text thinks it will remain private," she says.
"Technology distances students from what they're doing – they don't see the physical side of it. They are only pressing buttons, to them it is private.
"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'."
How can we expect teenagers to value modesty when the most popular people in the public eye do just the opposite?
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian (the 10th most followed person on Twitter) became a household name thanks to a sex tape.
Megastars such as Scarlett Johansson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rihanna haven't seen their brand damaged by leaked nude photos on mobiles.
But the sad reality is that while some celebrities might seem to profit from flashing their flesh, the same isn't true for young people following their example.
"We don't want to scare teenagers or parents away from technology but it's really important they think about what they're doing before they click," says Avril.
"Unlike the traditional hickey, the digital hickey is out there forever and can have long-term consequences.
"Future employers can check public profiles online and if there's an image out there of a certain nature that could affect future employment.
"There's also a legal issue whereby explicit images of an under-18 are considered child pornography."
But perhaps most worrying is the devastating effect sharing intimate photos can have on a young person's reputation, leaving them vulnerable to bullying.
In 2008, Ohio teen Jesse Logan (18) committed suicide after a former boyfriend forwarded a nude photo she'd sent him while they were together.
Hope Witsell (13), from Florida, hung herself after a topless photo sent to a boy she had a crush on made the rounds at school in 2009.
This year, Canadian school-girl Amanda Todd (15) killed herself having suffered years of merciless bullying after an image of her breasts was made public by a man who persuaded her to flash him online at the age of 12.
"There haven't been the same high-profile cases in Ireland but bullying as a result of sexting does happen here and can really affect a young person's mental health," warns John Buckley, Youth Engagement Officer for Spunout.ie.
"We encourage young people to think about their safety before engaging in any sexual activity."
He adds: "Sexual behaviour has evolved and sexting is part of that. It's easy to engage in but the important thing is to be aware of the risks and safety.
"By sending a sext you're revealing yourself at your most vulnerable. We're not saying 'don't do it' – telling young people not to do something isn't the way to go – but they need to stop and think 'do I trust this person? Could this end up on the internet? Is it safe?'"