Like it or not - and most parents absolutely hate it - sexting is a fact of life for today’s young people. And acknowledging that uncomfortable truth has prompted the Australian Medical Association (AMA) to take action.
That program, Dr. YES (short for Youth Education Session), sends medical students to high schools to talk candidly with kids about taboo subjects that affect their health and wellbeing. Sexting has now been added to the list.
One in seven teens has sent explicit text messages. One in four has received them - frequently from strangers. That’s according to a recent review study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Pediatric Association.
Julian Ming coordinates the YES program - and he urges parents to get comfortable talking with their children about sexual behaviour.
In a world where boys and girls will almost certainly be exposed to pornography in primary school, the need to have conversations around sex early and often cannot be overstated.
When sexts are exchanged between consenting teens, many adults and most young people don’t see an issue.
But Family Zone cyber expert Dr. Joanne Orlando notes that the whole issue of “consent” is a murky one, pointing to the powerful peer pressure teens can experience.
It’s extremely common “for someone to feel pressured to send a text, possibly in the hope of keeping a relationship or attracting the attention of someone," she says.
The sending of unsolicited sexts - think the ubiquitous “dick pic” - is a gross violation of the privacy of the recipient.
Yet many young people simply see the practice as harmless fun, or a form of perfectly acceptable flirting.
Then there’s the problem of image sharing. What starts out as a one-to-one interaction can easily spiral out of control. And a photo that was meant for one pair of eyes only is suddenly on view to dozens or even thousands of strangers.
The implications for wellbeing can be extremely serious, experts agree. “Imagine if you were 15 years old and out of the blue your receive a sexually explicit comment or image on your phone,” notes Dr. Orlando, a senior education lecturer at Western Sydney University.
“Maybe it was sent it to you directly to attract your attention, or maybe it is being passed around at school and has been sent to you. In either case, there are important social, emotional and legal consequences.”
Dr. Rosanna Capolingua, co-founder of the Dr. YES program, agrees.
"To have your image shared when you first have believed that it was perhaps in a consensual understanding, you could feel violated, you could feel ashamed, you could feel embarrassed, and that's when your self-esteem starts to get undermined," she said.
So what’s the solution?
Julian Ming is adamant that 24-hour surveillance of kids’ online activity is a losing strategy - and a violation of kids’ right to privacy. “That’s just a culture of mistrust,” he says.
Dr. Orlando echoes that view. “Educating young people about sexting needs to give them strategies for how to deal with these kinds of situations. It should give them strategies for what to do if they are pressured into sending or receiving sexts, the legal consequences for them and the best ways to pre-arm themselves to avoid such situations.”
The key? “Being open with your child and having ongoing conversations. Read factsheets to keep your own information up to date and encourage your child to read them too; this is a great way of starting the conversation with them.”
Learn more about sexting from Family Zone:
Family Zone’s holistic approach to digital health and wellbeing stresses education, awareness and open dialogue between parents and children. Our world-leading parental control solutions are recommended by Australia’s foremost experts on children and technology - including Dr. Joanne Orlando. To learn more, or to start your free trial today, visit us at familyzone.com.