Last month, SA Police seized several phones from a school in South Australia’s Riverland region following allegations of sexting, and many young people are being hauled before the courts amid a widespread ‘misunderstanding’ about what is consensual and legal.
SA Police Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lambert said people were often pressured to send nude photos, received unwanted nude photos or had their private nude photos shared with others, particularly after a break-up.
Possessing a naked photo of a child under the age of 18 can be classified as child exploitation material and is deemed a serious criminal offence.
“When you’re dealing with teenagers and children, who don’t have much life experience, you’re always going to get issues that develop in relationships and so it does happen quite often,” he said.
“It depends on how far they escalate and to what sort of circumstances arise as to whether it may involve police or it can be resolved through conciliation between family members.
“Some applications say they are secure, but people still take screenshots and all sorts of things, so really when you’re posting a nude photo you never really know where it’s going to end up, and that’s the same for adults as well.”
Police in every jurisdiction across Australia run a program, in collaboration with Australian Federal Police, that educates children around sexting, cyber bullying, online child exploitation, online privacy, and what to do when something goes wrong.
“I think the programs that are in place at the moment are really good,” Chief Inspector Lambert said.
“Whether that’s being utilised enough, it’s difficult to tell but they do have access to that program but when it comes to child protection, there’s always more that can be done.”
However, In Your Skin founder Tessa Opie, who runs education and consultation sessions around healthy relationships and sexuality, said despite many teenagers and young adults knowing the risks, sexting was still “incredibly common” and more needed to be done.
“Some schools are being quite brave and quite pioneering … other schools I think are quite worried about parental backlash,” she said.
“There are many schools out there who aren’t discussing it at all.”
Television shows shine a light on sexting culture
Many schools are simply referring their students and parents to watch television shows like The Hunting, which was filmed at Adelaide High School, and explores the legal and ethical implications of sexting, privacy and online exploitation.
Dr Opie helped with the scripting used in The Hunting and said she believed the zero-tolerance and victim-blaming approach many schools were taking was not the answer.
“Whilst they are aware of the risks and the relevant legislation associated with sexting, we know that many of them continue to engage with their peers in this way.
“We also know that girls report more commonly than boys that they feel under pressure to send sexts, so it’s not always 100 per cent voluntary and enthusiastic, but I do think for many young people it is.
“We know that simply saying ‘don’t have sex’, doesn’t work. People are more inclined to listen to harm reduction messages, which are if you insist on doing this, should you choose to, this is how you can keep yourself safe.”
Dr Opie said sending nude photos did not end when people left school, but that sexting was more common for people in their early and mid-20s with the rise of dating apps.
She said she was regularly asked to run her healthy relationship courses for adults, including at sporting clubs, as people sometimes inadvertently overstepped the line between legal and illegal, and consensual and non-consensual.
What young people are saying:
- “There’s a lot of problems that occur and the only time it’s being addressed is when it’s being caught in the action. We’ve never been educated about it in classroom settings.” Melissa, 17
- “It happens so often that people send nude photos. I think they just want validation from boys to be honest, they want to be known, they want to be popular, they want to look good. I don’t reckon it’s too often that there’s issues but sometimes it can be sent into boy’s group chats. It’s pretty disgusting really. I don’t know any of my friends who don’t use social media to hook up.” Kiana, 17
- “People in schools definitely use their phones to talk and have relationships with people. I don’t really know anyone [who] uses it for sexting but we have been informed about it and the dangers of it at school.” Ayden, 16
She has called for a complete overhaul of the national curriculum that takes a harm-reduction approach to sexting and dating online, rather than zero tolerance.
“I do think there’s a reluctance on behalf of many teachers to tackle this content and present it. It forces a lot of us to reflect on our own values around sexuality,” she said.
“The evidence base is there, we can’t dispute it any longer and I guess it’s just about moving forward [and] establishing a way where this can be incorporated into the national curriculum and supporting teachers in such a way where they feel confident and competent in delivering that content.
“Once you’ve covered the legislation component, it’s sort of saying ‘look, if you’re going to engage in this activity, there’s a couple of harm-reduction messages you can give like, ‘don’t show your face, no tattoos, no birthmarks, nothing identifiable’.
“But also, if you’re going to share these images, make sure the person with whom you’re sharing them holds the same standards of privacy, consent [and] interpersonal trust.”
CEO of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation Lesley Podesta agreed.
“I don’t think any school yet has come up with a solution of how to equip young people to exist safely and responsibly in a digital age,” she said.
“They’re using programs like The Hunting to engender conversations but watching a television program is no substitute for well-grounded, comprehensive curriculum education, support and understanding.
“We’ve got an education system that hasn’t kept pace with the changing nature of young people’s lives and we absolutely need to refresh our Australian curriculum standards which recognises the behaviours of young people.
“Abstinence campaigns, ‘say no’ campaigns, don’t really change behaviours, what they do is they drive behaviours underground.”
She said young people needed to be protected and, if school and community-based education programs were not improved, some children who did not have supportive role models or parental support were more at risk.
“I know teachers have a lot to carry and I think it’s really important we don’t say it’s the teacher’s job without any support, this requires the best resources,” she said.
“The answer to this is not just school … not every child goes to school consistently and, sadly, some of the children who are school resisters and children who are moved around from school to school are some of the kids who are equally at risk.”