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Is Your Teenager Playing With Fire?

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Today is Safer Internet Day. Never has the issue been so topical and urgent. We've all heard reports that teenagers are becoming increasingly sexualised. Images of scantily clad pop stars on MTV are nothing new, but what would you think if we said that girls as young as 14 think it is perfectly normal to send a naked photograph of themselves to a boy they barely know? A gross exaggeration? Harmless horseplay or teenage high jinks taken out of context?

Let's just think about that for a second. A 14-year-old girl sending explicit photographs to a near stranger that can be sent on to hundreds or thousands of others in a couple of mouse clicks. And teenage boys, of course, are not famed for their sensitivity and discretion.

We are increasingly hearing from worried teenagers who know photographs of them are out there somewhere on the internet, being passed from person to person. Often they end up in the hands of adult sex offenders; paedophiles.

There are three factors here: easy access to online adult content, smart phones with cameras, and parents and teachers who are at best struggling to know how to raise the issue and at worst totally ignorant to what's happening.

Throw in time honoured issues such as a need to 'fit in'; a desire for validation and admiration of your peers; racing hormones; and a healthy dose of naivety and thrill seeking and you get a recipe for disaster.

It happens like this: impressionable and curious boys watch hard core adult videos. Any smart phone or internet connected computer without the correct filters set up can be used to look up these videos in a matter of seconds. They are free and many are simply depraved.

They start to think that what they are viewing is 'normal' or at least acceptable. Boys compete to find the most depraved and shocking videos and then share them with their friends. When they then get a girlfriend or sexual partner they expect them to perform as the girls in videos do. The girls are expected to do this to such an extent that even they begin to think it's acceptable or just what normally happens in grown up relationships.

The boys then want to make their own videos. They film everything else they do and they learn about sex from videos, so why wouldn't they make their own? The technology is there, everyone else is doing it.

Add a need for validation from peers, the growing obsession with sharing via Facebook and Twitter, and age old male bravado and competitiveness, and boys will want to pass the videos onto their friends. Some boys go to even more extremes by using the videos to blackmail girls into further sexual acts. They may even coerce or actually force girls to take part. This is then moving from teenage high jinks into sexual abuse and child abuse videos.

But surely teenagers aren't stupid; they know rape is very wrong? And they know child abuse images are very wrong? They do, but the line is now so blurred that young people are crossing it without even realising it. Technology is moving quicker than our ability to educate our young about how to use it responsibly. And any parent who thinks they know what their teenager gets up to I would say they would be shocked if they looked through their phone.

Some say it's just teenagers doing what they have always done. Most kids looked up rude words in a dictionary at some point in their childhood. Or had five minutes behind the bike shed. How is this different?

Well, firstly, the ramifications are completely different. A photo that takes a second to send can hang around online forever. It's also the severity of it, the level to which they will go. Perhaps I'm looking back through misty eyed nostalgia but I'm pretty sure the boys at my school didn't blackmail girls to give them pornographic images and then pass them to all their friends.

And it's also the world in which young people now live. A world where everything is shared. Everything they do requires a 'like' or a 'share' from their peers. They need that validation. They see celebrities living their life in the open. Nothing is sacred.

And if you are in any doubt about just how serious this is you should know that distributing sexual images of under 18s is a very serious offence, even if the person doing it is a minor themselves. These pictures technically constitute child abuse images and carry a maximum 10 years in jail. A 16 year old boy recently went to a young offender's institute for 10 months for sending photos of his 14 year old girlfriend to his friends. He'll remain on the sex offenders register for life. Do you think he realised the ramifications of what he was doing at the time or do you think he was just mucking about?

Like rioters who stole a drink or posted provocative comments online found themselves serving months or even years in jail, the enormity of this is something many young people have not grasped. They haven't got the maturity or the experience to understand the consequences of their actions.

That's why we, as adults and parents, must make sure they understand. Does your teenager know never to get in a car with a stranger? Of course they do. Do they know never to stay out all night without letting you know? Of course they do. Have you told them never to send sexual pictures of themselves to others? Probably not.

And if you think this is something only a handful of 'bad lads' get up to, think again. Research by EU Kids Online shows that 20 per cent of 15 and 16 year-olds have sent or received sexual messages. This is likely to be an underestimate as more recent in depth research the NSPCC worked on with Plymouth University found that it was so common among some teenagers that they saw it as 'mundane'. Some said that accessing pornography online was so easy and wide spread that it had almost become passé and to win respect among their peers they needed homemade images and videos.

If you have a teenager, talk to them, challenge them and ask their school what they are doing about it. Do it tonight, before they do something really stupid.

Parents with concerns can contact trained NSPCC helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support on 0808 800 5000.

ChildLine is available on 0800 1111. It's the UK's only free and confidential 24-hour helpline for children and young people. Trained volunteer counsellors comfort, advise and protect children and young people aged 18 and under. No problem is too big or too small.

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