The NSPCC published a very worrying piece of research earlier this month on 'sexting'. I say worrying because it gave an insight into the sorts of pressures that young people are under to take part in sexting. And that got me thinking about just how seriously this issue is being taken. Because the harsh reality is that boys and girls are both at huge risk.
It is worth reflecting on exactly what we are talking about here. Sexting is defined as the:
"exchange of sexual messages or images" and "creating, sharing and forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images" through mobile phones and the Internet.
Quantitative research on sexting varies but the statistics suggest that between 15 and 40% of young people are involved in sexting, depending on their age and the way sexting is measured.
The NSPCC study was conducted by researchers from the Institute of Education, King's College London, London School of Economics and the Open University. It consisted of a small scale qualitative study of young people in two London schools aimed at to improving the understanding of sexting and the use of mobile technology by young people.
The key findings were that the danger from sexting comes from peers not strangers. That it is often coercive and that girls are the most adversely affected. That technology amplifies the problem by further facilitating the objectification of girls by boys. And that the sexual pressures that many young people feel under participate in sexting start from a relatively young age, for instance the report quotes a female in year 8 (so aged about 12) who said:
'If they want it [a blow job] they will ask [by text] every single day until you say yes.'
Now young people being interested in sex is hardly something new. And nor is the taking of risks by young people as they explore their sexuality. When I was at school there was often someone who seemed to have access to a porn-mag and that gave them some sort of status within the group. Or there was the teacher that everyone fancied and said or wrote things about that you always hoped they would never see.
I even remember rumours of 'you-show-me-yours' going on from time to time. But the advent of modern technology has amplified the problem so that young people are now exposed to a very different and potentially more serious set of risks. All too often neither they nor their parents and adults fully appreciate this. And you can understand why.
I think that I am a pretty technology savvy parent but I am also pretty sure that my children are more so. For them mobile technology has always been a part of their lives, for me it arrived late. For them, having a pocket device that sends instance messages including photos and videos is as normal as riding a bike was to me at their age.
And that familiarity means that respect for the potential harm is often absent. Taking photos and sharing them is massively popular. Where people used to clap and cheer at events they now take photos and videos with their smartphones. And critically the images are instantly shared. What is often not appreciated is that this sharing cannot be controlled; that once you press send or upload then the image is no longer yours but has effectively become public. The private picture sent to your boyfriend can be instantly shared around school and beyond so that what seemed fun quickly becomes devastating.
Take the case of the teenager recently jailed for 10 months for bullying a young girl into sending a video of herself naked. She was left devastated and he ended up in a young offenders institution. And yet, as the NSPCC report shows, many other boys in schools are likely to feel under pressure to harvest such images of their peers. As one male participant aged 14 said:
If they had a picture of a girl naked and you told them, 'That's wrong,' they will think straight away you are gay.
And they would do so without understanding the potential illegality of their acts and the potentially devastating impact on the girl and indeed on themselves. For them it would be just doing what everyone seems to be doing. It's just a text or an upload after all. How serious can that really be? And I suspect that many adults and parents whilst horrified at the thought do not in reality see this behaviour as being nearly as serious or prevalent as it in reality often is.
Presumably that is until they find the indecent images on their own child's phone. Here at the NSPCC until very recently we never took calls from people worried about sexting. Now we take several a month; often where there is an incident at school involving the sharing of images either by text or social media. The numbers are only likely to keep increasing.
But there is in effect a culture of silence that means that young people with their mobile phones are putting themselves and each other at risk. Boys under pressure to see girls as objects of sexual gratification. Girls under pressure to conform to a caricatured sense of sexual attractiveness. And parents and adults worried but unsure of the extent of the danger and embarrassed to talk about it.
But, as the NSPCC report concludes, the rapid advancement of technology means that the nature of the problem also keeps changing just as rapidly. Clearly more work is needed to help parents and professionals to better understand the nature and extent of the problem. And, critically, so that they can better help young people protect themselves.
If you are worried that a young person is involved in sexting then let the NSPCC know by calling 0808 800 5000 or by texting text 88858, or visit nspcc.org.uk/helpline. If you are a young person worried about sexting then contact Childline on 0800 1111 or visit www.childline.org.uk