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Sexting is the act of sending photos, videos or text messages of a sexual nature to others, usually by mobile phone. According to the ONS, in the year ending March 2020, 1 in 10 children (aged 13 to 15) admitted to receiving a sexual message in the previous 12 months. A further 1 in 100 admitted to sending one.
Young people tend to underestimate the risks that engaging in activity such as sexting poses. As parents, it is important that we are able to have open and honest conversations with our children to help them to build safer and healthier relationships.
What is sexting?
Sexing is a modern word that is made by combining the words sex and texting. It involves the sending or exchanging of sexual content using a phone or any digital device.
Sexting might be done via traditional texting (sending a text message from one phone number to another), using social media messaging services or via any of the popular messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Snapchat.
It might be done between a couple in a committed relationship or as a form of flirting between potential partners. Some people may sext more casually because they think it is funny or as a kind of bravado in front of their friends.
Sexting becomes more of an issue if the contact is unwanted or if it is being done as part of a grooming scenario or to purposely get private messages/photos/videos from a person in order to hurt or extort them.
Is sexting a problem?
Teens and tweens are naturally curious about sex and relationships and sexting is an area where young people often fail to recognise the risks that can be involved. In part, this may be due to the fact that young people fail to make the connection between what happens online and real world consequences.
One risk of sexting is that you cannot always be sure who is at the other end of a mobile device. You may think you are sending a photo to a trusted person but they may have been hacked, lost their phone or allowed a family member to borrow it.
Other risks of sexting can include:
- Private images or messages being shared or going viral.
- Blackmailing (also called sextortion).
- Damage to reputation.
At the extreme end, sexting, especially with a stranger, can put young people at risk of exploitation such as child trafficking.
Sometimes, when private images are exposed publicly, or someone regrets sending sexts, it can lead to feelings of worry and depression. Some people experience significant mental health issues after their private images have been circulated. A number of young people have sadly even committed suicide as a result of sexting going wrong.
In a trusting relationship, sexting between consenting adults can be fun, but it is important for young people (and parents) to recognise the very real risks that are associated with sexting.
What is the difference between sexting and cybersex?
Cybersex can refer to various types of activity that involves the internet being used to gain some kind of sexual gratification. This might include a couple watching one another perform sex acts via webcam or people exchanging graphic, sexual messages in an online forum.
Sexting is a form of cybersex. It is often done via a mobile phone but can also be done using other digital platforms.
What are the types of sexting?
Sexting might be in the form of sending sexually charged content via:
- Messages using words or text.
- Gifs (an image, usually animated, sent from stock images).
Generally, explicit photos will include naked or partially naked pictures that a person takes of themselves (selfies). However, what a person considers taboo or sexual will depend on their upbringing and worldview, including their faith and how strict their parents are.
Sometimes, young people have found themselves in a situation where they are accused of sexting or experience consequences as a result of sexting simply by sending photos of them in less clothing than their parents consider acceptable in front of others. This might include a female with her hair uncovered or with her arms exposed when she would not usually be allowed to do this.
For many young people, sexting may include the exchange of graphic or flirtatious text messages such as imagined scenarios/fantasies, role-playing or making plans for the kinds of sexual activity they plan to have with someone.
Sexting can include visual prompts instead of, or in addition to, text. This might include sending photos or videos including naked bodies, people in stages of undress or simulating sex acts.
Certain emojis also have sexual connotations (which may escape the attention of parents), for example the aubergine emoji is widely recognised as symbolising the penis, the water splash emoji can mean ejaculation and the bowl of noodles (noods) is used as shorthand for ‘send nudes’.
Young people may also use other language such as simply ‘send pics’ and talk about receiving ‘dick pics’, meaning photos of the male genitals, usually in a state of arousal. These may be sent at random (referred to as ‘unsolicited dick pics’).
What are the signs of sexting?
It may be difficult to monitor what your child is doing online on their phone or computer 24/7. If you notice a change in behaviour of your teen or tween, you should address this with them in a calm and caring manner.
Your child may be involved in sexting if:
- Your child is overly secretive about their mobile phone.
- They do not want to open messages in front of you.
- You notice once they get a notification, they immediately leave the room to check it.
- Your child appears nervous or embarrassed after checking their device.
- You hear them snapping pictures in the bathroom or with their bedroom door locked.
- They are defensive if you ask what they are doing or who they are communicating with.
If you are worried about your child or their behaviour, you should speak to them and let them know that you are there to support them.
What effects can sexting have?
Sexting may be seen as harmless, fun or even amusing but it is important that your child realises that it could result in serious consequences, ranging from embarrassment to a criminal record.
There can also be a lot of peer pressure surrounding teens and sexual activity. No one should be pressured into taking part in sexting or shamed for having sexual boundaries. As with in-person sexual encounters, consent is everything and no means exactly that: no. People who feel pressured into sexting, or who have their trust betrayed, can end up feeling isolated, depressed and anxious.
Sexting someone else when you are already in a relationship may also be considered cheating by your partner which can result in heartache and upset and the breakdown of your relationship.
If any images or messages that were intended to be private become public, this can lead to significant embarrassment and upset. Content that makes its way to the internet can be widely accessed by anyone and can be there forever. This has the potential to affect future educational or employment opportunities.
Who is at risk of sexting?
Anyone who uses any digital device and is contactable by others is technically open to sexting. The best way to ensure you are only contacted by trusted contacts is to keep your information private. This includes not sharing your phone number or username with people you do not know and not accepting random friend requests.
Children who do not understand the risks or consequences of sexting are the most vulnerable to it. By talking to your children in an open and honest way about sex and relationships (including sexting) you are helping to safeguard them from harm and exploitation or from putting others at risk.
How parents can prevent sexting
The best way for parents to prevent their child from engaging in sexting is to speak to them about it before it happens.
Although it can feel awkward talking to your children about sex, it is the best way to empower them against becoming a victim, or against unknowingly doing something that could get them into trouble.
Here are some tips for talking to your child about the realities of sexting:
- Talk to your children in a relaxed environment so they do not feel overwhelmed – you want to open up a dialogue with them, not give a lecture, so be open-minded and willing to listen.
- Be clear with them about what you want to say (even if you find it difficult). It might be useful to open up by asking if your child understands about consent, what the word means and that it can be withdrawn at any time.
- Ask your child what they know about sexting and if they have any concerns about it.
- Explain to your child that sending a sexual message or photo may seem like nothing at the time, but a good rule is that if they would not walk up and say/do it in real life, then not to say/do it via text either.
- Let them know that you understand young people live a large part of their life on the internet but that you want to keep them safe and that what they put online can be there forever (even if they think it has been deleted).
- Ask your child if they understand that sexting can have consequences. Sexual images and messages can be easily shared online or screenshot and sent to others. Once they decide to sext with someone, if the content is not kept private it could lead to bullying, embarrassment or problems later in life, such as in future employment. Sexting with someone under 18 years old can also have legal implications.
- Ask them directly if they would want their future boss or their school principal to see a private, nude photo of them that has been leaked after sexting with someone. The only way to ensure this does not happen, is not to share this kind of content in the first place.
- Speak to them about how damaging it could be if they were to leak or share the private images that someone has sent to them. Even if they think it is funny or they would not be bothered by it themselves, it does not mean that others feel the same way – this behaviour can, and does, ruin lives.
- Finally, ensure that the door is kept open for future conversations if they have questions. Make sure they know that if one day someone sends them messages that make them uncomfortable, they can come to you for help and advice.
Parents should not only set clear rules about how they expect their children to use their mobile devices but also explain why they have these rules in place.
Can sexting be prevented?
Anyone who can receive a text could potentially receive a sext. One way to ensure that sexting is never an issue for your child is to ensure that they never have access to a mobile device or any instant messaging service. However, this is increasingly becoming an implausible way for people to live their lives.
Mobile phones and other devices keep us connected; they help us search for jobs, make appointments and do our homework. Many parents also like their children to have a mobile phone for safety reasons and like to be able to keep in contact with them when they are out of the house.
The reality, therefore, is that the best way to ensure that your children do not get themselves into trouble by sending/receiving sexual messages is to empower them by having open and honest conversations about it and making sure they understand the consequences sexting can have. That way they can make informed decisions.
Some parents choose to:
- Periodically check their children’s devices
- Set up age restrictions on online content that their child can access
- Use specific apps that will send an alert if certain activity or trigger words occur
It may seem like your children are growing up in a completely different world than the one that you did, but in order to empower them to deal with the pitfalls of online communication you need to understand it yourself. This means keeping up to date with changes and being willing to continuously learn.
Can sexting be reported?
If you receive unwanted attention in the form of sexting you should always make this known to the person sending the messages. You do not have to feel pressured into going along with it or too embarrassed to address the situation. For most people, simply being told to stop will be enough to stop them from doing it again.
If you are feeling threatened or distressed by someone sexting you, then you may want to report it. If your child is receiving unwanted sexual messages then you have various options open to you if you wish to report it.
If your child attends school, the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) will be the person who is best placed to help you with your concerns.
Occasionally, you may need to speak to the police about sexting. Sexting should always be reported to the police if it forms part of a wider campaign of bullying or harassment. Advice is usually that you should keep a record of any of the content that you receive, along with dates and times, as evidence. This is easy to do with online contact as the person sexting you will leave a cybertrail behind them.
The age of consent for sex is 16 in the UK. However, in section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 it states that it is illegal to make, distribute, show or possess indecent images of any persons under the age of 18. This means that to engage in sexting with anyone under the age of 18 (even with their consent) could technically lead to legal trouble.
It is illegal to share sexual images of underage children online and this can result in a prison sentence and having to sign the sex offenders register.
The sharing of sexually explicit images without consent, sometimes referred to as revenge porn, is also illegal and is covered under various pieces of legislation including sections 33-35 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019. No matter how badly a relationship ends, it is never acceptable to publish private images of an ex-partner in order to hurt them.
Today’s youth have grown up with technology integrated into their everyday lives. Despite the advantages that being a digital native brings, only life experience can truly teach us how much danger we face when we leave ourselves completely vulnerable to whoever is at the other end of a screen.
As parents, it is important that we impress on our children how one online decision can have many consequences in the real world.