When a person sends, receives or forwards sexual content in an image, video, or text message, using digital communication technology, including mobile phones and computers, society refers to this as sexting.
Generally, in my work, it is when a teenage boy asks a girl for a naked image of her body or a particular part of her body.
The girl inside a trusting relationship or before a relationship develops then sends one. I repeat generally because girls ask boys for them also, and boys do send them. However, in my work, I mainly deal with males asking females.
It is one of the most frequent situations I deal with, and it can be very traumatic for the female who has naked images circulating in her school and community.
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For the young male, the experience of meeting a police officer and an enraged father of the girl can also be very traumatic.
In some cases, after a relationship breaks down, the young male is so angry or heartbroken that he launches the naked images onto a public social network to cause public shame to the girl.
This is a crime, and police may become involved. This is often referred to as revenge porn.
The impact on the girl can and often is severe. We respond with a child protection focus, making sure she is physically safe, then moving to limit exposure to the images.
There are stages to the exposure that include rage from the girl’s parents, followed by a sickening realisation that they have no control over how others will treat their daughter. It is not uncommon for rumours to spread.
Some teenagers who become aware of the images bully and even circulate or store the images on their phones. This can also be a crime under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, and police may get involved.
I recall four female teenagers asking for advice on what to do about three males at their school who sent naked images of themselves to the girls for fun.
The boys were pulling down their pants, taking pictures of their penis and circulating them to girls. This is often referred to as a dick pic.
I think describing the behaviour is far more effective at understanding the problem. If this happened in the workplace to a female, there would be demands for accountability.
The word sexting, revenge porn and dick pics is not appropriate to describe this modern issue because it hides the behaviours allowing society to live with it, we then become ignorant to its impact on both males and females.
I see the real pain and harm that people go through when this occurs. I have watched girls sob and shake uncontrollably because they cannot bear the thought of going back to school.
I have watched boys look at me with shock and in tears when they are shown what the legal response could be because of what they have done.
I have watched mothers cry with disbelief once they learn what their young man has done to a girl, who they often know themselves.
We cannot allow this to settle into normalcy for our young people.
When a young male asks a girl for a naked image, it is because he sees an imbalance of power.
He would never ask an adult female in the workplace for this image because he knows the possible consequence.
Teaching both females and males that they are unique and valuable and that their bodies are unique and private to them is the key to change, and it needs to start young, not in the classroom but in the living room.
The sexualization of our children and our most impressionable starts at a young age.
In most primary schools I go into, I meet some young children from 6 and 7 years of age that tell me about their favourite R18 games and what they like to do in the game.
In some of these games, players can commit sexual acts or beat others with wooded bats.
I vaguely describe tv programmes to the same 7-year-olds in which women fill their lips with filler and walk around barely clothed.
I describe a mother in one of the programmes who is in her 70s but has tight skin and looks slightly odd.
I ask them what those programmes are, and they name them within seconds.
Many can tell me that the mum’s face is tight and shiny because she has had plastic surgery.
The same 7-year-olds tell me about reality tv programmes in which women seem to cry a lot and the boys drink a lot.
They tell me about a programme where a man can win a woman by interviewing 10 women over many weeks.
One young man said, you do not win one John; you pay for the best one. The sexualization of our children starts early these days.
Not every teenager sends pictures of their genitals to other teenagers at school or outside of it, but enough do to cause significant problems.
Not every 7-year-old is playing R18 games or watching adult reality tv programmes, but enough are to cause significant problems.
I cannot prove a connection between early exposure to R18 games, reality tv, social media and the sexualization of children or teenagers.
I can tell you 7-year-olds who receive information daily that is aggressive, violent and promotes an imbalance of power will have less of a chance of valuing themselves or others later in life.
The most effective way to reduce sexting in our society is to name the behaviours more often, limit exposure to inappropriate content in the younger years, and develop open non-judgemental communication with our young. And talk often about respect, decency, and equality.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
- If you discover your child has sent naked images that are in circulation, contact your school, they will want to support your child while they are at school.
- If you discover your child has sent naked images and is in a vulnerable potion. You can also contact Netsafe.org for advice.
- If you think your child is in immediate danger, contact the Police, they will know what to do or who to contact.
- Be supportive and do not overreact, your child needs your support and love.
- If you feel that your child is not coping well – perhaps they won’t leave their bedroom, they’ve stopped talking to you or don’t want to leave the house – consider offering your child the opportunity to speak to a therapist, perhaps arranged via your doctor.
- If you are losing sleep or unable to concentrate, consider seeing your doctor or asking a trusted friend to support you. The most important thing to do is talk to someone about how you are feeling.
- Introduce your child to the Harmful Digital Communications Act.
Children need time to be children so that they can become confident adults.
- John Parsons is a child protection consultant. Parsons is funded to work across Southland by the Rotary Club of Invercargill East Charitable Trust EQ-IQ Cyber-safety project.