Four months into a job dominated by child abuse and sadly I am not easily shocked. But I was stunned recently by teenage reactions to a conversation about the risks associated with sending explicit images of themselves via their smartphones or onto the web.
It was obvious to me. Don't do it and there's no risk of a compromising image falling into the wrong hands, with potentially devastating consequences. But no. For the youngsters I was with, the exchange of explicit pictures was a commonplace feature of adolescent relationships. "It's what we do," they said. "It's only a problem if and when the relationship turns sour."
Our research says I should not have been surprised. The sharing of self-generated sexually explicit images or videos by mobile phone or online, is now commonplace amongst young people to the point that it is considered 'mundane' whether or not young people engage in it themselves. And it seems that lots do. Sixty per cent of the young people recently surveyed by ChildLine said they had been asked for a sexual image or video of themselves; 40% said they had created an image or video of themselves, and around a quarter said they had sent it to someone else.
Most said the image went to a boyfriend or girlfriend, but most alarming of all, 15% said they had sent it to a total stranger.
Now, I know that young people want to experiment and explore their sexuality. And the thrill of taking risks and pushing boundaries is always going to be part of growing up. Frankly we are not going to stop sexting merely by instructing young people not to do it, or by pointing out that explicit under age images are illegal and they risk arrest. But I am deeply concerned that risks are not yet fully understood. What I care about is protecting young people who might not see the dangers and unintended consequences of sharing explicit images and videos of themselves.
And the risks are severe.
Once pressured into sharing an image of themselves, that image can then be used as part of a campaign of online bullying, or blackmail, by threatening to send it to parents or teachers.
Some teens may feel they are managing the risks by using apps which purport to send 'disposable' images. But there is no 100% guarantee the image will not be shared more widely and once online it may never be removed. The fear of an image resurfacing years down the line can have a long term impact into adult life.
Then there is the risk of an image getting into the wrong hands, especially where young people may not even know the person they have met online to whom they are sending it. The Internet Watch Foundation warned this week that images sent by teenagers are ending up on paedophile websites.
So what can be done? At the NSPCC, we will help. If a young person regrets posting an image and wants it removed from the web, talk to ChildLine on 0800 1111. If they can show us they are under 16, we can work with the Internet Watch Foundation to have their image removed from websites.
We are also working with young people themselves on tools that will help them resist the pressure to share images. But parents and schools can also help educate young people better about the risks, so they think twice before hitting send. Help them understand the consequences of their action so they decide themselves what is wise. Just saying "don't do it" won't solve this one, any more than instructing teenagers not to smoke solved that.
The internet, smartphones, and social media are here to stay. They have great benefits for young people in terms of their connectedness and learning. But there are risks too which, left unmanaged, will only end in tragedy for many more youngsters. The realities of teenage relationships in the digital age need surfacing now.
ChildLine offers support and advice for young people on any problem and is completely free and confidential.
For parents there is advice on the NSPCC website and through our helpline - 0808 800 5000. Teachers can download the Sexting in Schools toolkit produced by CEOP.
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