A nine-year-old girl who was sending nude photos of herself to boys in her class is a victim of the growing trend of "sexting" which is now becoming the "norm" among young people, it emerged yesterday.
Sexting is the sending or receiving of sexually explicit messages or images by text messaging or via email, said Caroline O'Sullivan, director of services at the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Dealing with the fallout from sexting is now an area of serious concern and is becoming more and more a feature of the organisation's daily work, she told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs.
They regard it as a safe way to explore their sexuality. However, sexting is leading to "sexploitation".
"The levels of stress and anxiety created by reputational damage from sexting is evident from calls to Childline, the support line, and through our face-to-face work," she said.
"Young people are feeling pressurised to share self-generated sexual images, with many considering it the new online version of flirting.
"Schools reported that girls were self-generating images of themselves and these were being shared amongst students. Some girls are feeling pressure from their friends to send an image but are then often criticised for this behaviour."
In one case, a member of school staff reported the young age at which some children are engaging in this behaviour and they referred to a nine-year-old girl sending nude photos of herself to boys in her class.
"A 16-year-old girl was referred to the ISPCC child and family support service due to concerns of her sharing intimate pictures and content with her male peers.
"Within sessions, this girl discussed male students in her school sending her unsolicited inappropriate pictures and she said that this was a common problem in her school," she said.
"She became the recipient of explicit messages and pictures long after she had engaged in sharing explicit pictures of herself.
She was concerned about the implications for her reputation which she felt was blighted due to her past decisions."
The delegation said cyber safety was a major issue for young people and parents believe if a child is on the computer in their room they are safe.
But they could end up being groomed by paedophiles or subjected to bullying.
Young people are fearful of accessing support to deal with cyber safety issues.