Thursday 19 October 2017

Safe sexting in age of 'revenge porn'

On Safer Internet Day, our reporter considers whether we need to rethink the current moral panic over 'sexting' - for every generation

Intimate communications: Sexting has become more prevalen
Intimate communications: Sexting has become more prevalen
New York politician Anthony Weiner

Tanya Sweeney

Just as they've always been, parents are often at a loss to decode the secret worlds of their children. And with much of their activity happening on smartphones and laptops, Generation Z can prove especially cryptic.

Last month, the PSNI Newry and Mourne shared a guide to 'secret sexting codes', which originated in the US. The guide, for instance, reveals that LH6 stands for "let's have sex" while the number 8 apparently represents oral sex. Other terms include MOS (mum over shoulder), P999 (parent alert) or PAL (parents are listening), and even KPC for "keeping parents clueless".

Certainly, the list appears timely, not least because Irish teenagers were found to be among the fourth highest in the EU for sexting (the sharing of explicit content, often photos, through digital technology). Over 4.4pc of boys and 1.6pc of girls aged 11-16 are engaged in the behaviour, according to research presented at last year's Anti-Bullying Research Centre Conference.

Of course, sexting is now so pervasive that it barely constitutes an issue exclusively for parents. The list of adults who found their careers and reputations tarnished by sexting is a long one: famously, New York politician Anthony Weiner's professional (and personal) life was derailed when he was caught sexting with not one but four people (including, allegedly, a 15-year-old girl). Similarly, Vernon Kaye, Ashley Cole and Tiger Woods have all weathered sexting scandals in recent years, with varying degrees of success (only Kaye's marriage appears to have survived the episode).

New York politician Anthony Weiner
New York politician Anthony Weiner

And while sexting can topple an adult's career, the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 (Section 2) makes it clear that images of a child "engaged in explicit sexual activity", or images which focus on the "genital or anal region" will constitute child pornography.

Still, another report, from anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, found that youngsters now see sexting as part of normal life; 37pc had sent a naked photo of themselves, and 24pc had seen that image shared without their consent. While 49pc of those questioned said they believed sexting was just a bit of harmless fun and 16pc said it was "the normal thing to do", 13pc reported feeling pressurised into sending explicit pictures.

Sarah Newton is a UK-based speaker, youth coach and mother to 17-year-old Bronte, with whom she has written a novel.

"As parents we blame the technology, but the technology allows people to do something we might have done anyway," she says.

"Young people have been doing similar for decades… they fall in and out of love so quickly and emotions run high. By their very nature, they do things at breakneck speed, but the internet has added a whole new dimension to things."

And when these images are shared without consent - often, after a relationship ends, or if the 'relationship' wasn't considered serious to begin with - the psychological effects can be "devastating", as has been highlighted by a number of high-profile 'revenge porn' cases in recent months.

"We must protect our young people," says Newton. "Let's educate them, particularly on the ways in which people distribute the photos."

It's one thing wanting to enlighten one's kids on how to keep them safe if they decide to sext. It's quite another, however, to open up that particular conversation.

"If something hits the news, I'll say to my daughters, 'why do you think a girl might do that? Is it something you'd consider doing?' My kids don't tell me everything, but when we have conversations, they're not resistant to it. If you talk continually, nothing is ever off-limits. I think we're afraid if we ask questions, they'll just go and do it. But children are able to make their own minds up," Newton advises.

Colman Noctor, adolescent psychologist at St Patrick's Hospital, Dublin, also suggests parking the 'morality' issue in conversations with youngsters.

"The main reason why young people keep this stuff secret is the fear of repercussion that they shared it," he explains. "It's often about making them a bit more mindful about what they do online. Get them on side rather than adopting a controlling, finger-wagging approach, which only encourages them to go underground.

"Remind them if a kid comes to you with a problem, you can work around it. Say, 'no matter what you've done, come to me early'. Accept that they may make poor decisions, which is part and parcel of being a teenager."

Amy Adele Hasinoff, author of Sexting Panic: Rethinking Criminalisation, Privacy, and Consent, has called for parents, kids and authorities to rethink the current narrative around sexting. Instead of discouraging youngsters from sexting, she says, the law should be reformed to protect individuals' privacy.

"I don't think the current dialogue around sexting is very effective in preventing harm; privacy violations are what's harmful. I think in and of itself, sexting isn't necessarily something that's bad. Date rape is a problem, but we don't seek to ban all dating," says Hasinoff.

"If there is a violation in privacy, right now we blame the victim," she adds. "Often we blame the girl and say something like 'boys will be boys'. How we respond to the situation is troubling to me. We should be criticising the sharer, not the victim."

Moving forward, Hasinoff suggests that rather than deny that sexting is happening among youngsters, we raise awareness on 'sexting smart' instead.

"Think of how the abstinence approach has failed in sex education," she says. "We're reluctant to acknowledge that sexuality happens before people are 18, and there's this idea that teens should be chaste and asexual. There will always be a risk connected to sexting, but the conversation people need to have with their children is similar to the conversation you have if you're in a heterosexual relationship and decide to rely on the pill instead of condoms - how do you decide when you can trust that person not to bring home (an STD)? Making sure you can trust your partner is a good place to start."

Newton says the good news is that in her experience, teens are more sensible than they are often credited with.

"I always think it's best to start from an element of trust as opposed to 'I don't trust you'," she says. "The truth is that most young people are really quite sensible online, and if something goes wrong, we can always just ask our children about it. We don't have to come into the conversation as the adult who knows everything. It's our job to be a little bit nosey, but not necessarily looking over their shoulders."

A guide for dealing with teen sexting

Keep the channels of communication open. "Offering support is not the same as nagging," says Colman Noctor, adolescent psychologist at St Patrick's Hospital. "Sometimes it's okay to just say, 'If there's anything you want to talk about, I'm here'."

Don't threaten to take their smartphones: "The young person's big fear is that you'll take their device from them," says Noctor. "Instead, it's best to say, 'whatever is going on, that won't necessarily be a natural consequence'."

Talk to them sooner rather than later. "Kids as young as 12 and 13 are accessing porn, and these days you are forced into having conversations with our children that we didn't necessarily want to have five years ago. There's an illusion of childhood within the eyes of parents, and you have to crack through that."

Irish Independent

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