Sexting:don’t do it! …But what if I have?

Illuminati ©Evan Baden

Preventative messages are important. After all, prevention is better that a cure, this we know. And the best way to avoid risk becoming harm is to manage that risk in a way that is intelligent and predictive.

Preventative messages help reduce road accidents, help educate and reduce the number of teenage pregnancies and reduce the number of premature deaths from smoking. And yet post-advice and post-intervention systems are still required because people still get run over, or get pregnant or contract pulmonary cancer.

So what about sexting, the sending of sexual content and imagery to someone electronically, either consenting or otherwise, usually by mobile phone or social network?

There are enough anecdotes, stories and press cuttings around the phenomenon of “sexting” to fill the Albert Hall and they are often used to underpin the less-sophisticated preventative messages. Don’t be mistaken, there are some superb resources (CEOP “Exposed” Film and Teacher Resources)  available that seek to unpick the issues around sexting and provide educators with an intelligent and effective programme of preventative intervention and reporting. But there seems to be a gap.

In 2009, SWGfL and Plymouth Universtity, under the auspices of Professor Andy Phippen, conducted an online survey of over 500 (1100 finally) 11-16 year-olds in the South West of England around the sharing of personal images and videos online. (Summary Press Statement) (Executive Summary) (Full Report)

Whilst things may have moved on apace over the last two years, the survey was quite unique and the largest of its kind back then. And it generated some interesting indicators around prevalence, attitude and reporting:

  • It appeared to be relatively common (40% of respondents say that they know friends who have been involved in sexting. 27% of respondents said that sexting happens regularly or all of the time).
  • A significant number of respondents did not think that intimate images were inappropriate (40% topless/15%naked) even though the law would regard many of them as illegal
  • Over 70% would not report or get help from a trusted adult source but would rely on peers if things had gone wrong for them

Whilst not telling an adult is an appreciable response given the subject matter, it does identify a worrying gap in the support a young person can turn to if they have found themselves in difficulties for whatever reason.

How might we begin to craft a line of advice for post-sexting support that is effective, honest and pragmatic? Are there social and technical strategies that a young person can employ to help limit the damage? Who might they want to turn to if their peers are not there to support?

The SWGfL team are currently working on a set of guidelines that might help fill that gap. They cover:

  • Why these things happen and what different people think about it
  • When it has happened to others and what they have done
  • How the technology works and what the real risks are
  • What the first things are you can do to begin to take control
  • Whether your fears of getting into trouble are realistic
  • The impact on you for the future and what you can do about it
  • How to get support and advice from organisations who are there to help you for just this sort of issue

It explains the social, legal, reputational and technical consequences of losing control of sensitive personal content but also gives clear advice on questions to ask; how to request removal of content; how to flood bad stuff with good; how to get people on your side etc. It’s designed to shift the balance of power towards the individual, empowering them to make the right decisions.

This is clearly aimed at the young person who makes a mistake and not the recidivist or active perpetrator, for whom a separate and more rigorous line of intervention would be required. It is not a manual on how to “sext” nor how to “get away with it”. It does not condone but recognises that sometimes things happen for which help is needed. It will be available as:

  • A young person’s leaflet with simple “What to do” steps
  • A more detailed booklet for young people, families or educators
  • A mini-site with links to advice and support

We would be really interested in hearing views on the provision of such a resource generally: does it support or undermine safeguarding messages? Or if you have any views on what should not be left out of such a guide?

The materials will be released early Autumn.

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