The internet offers youth many opportunities to connect and explore, and this includes the exploration and development of their relationships. Certain sexual behaviours are expected at different ages and stages of development, particularly in young people nearing adulthood. However, while certain behaviours are expected, the role that technology plays can sometimes lead to risky or unsafe situations. Sexting is one example of this.
This module will explore what sexting is, how it happens and how you can help your students understand the risks surrounding sexting. You will also have the opportunity to understand why young people are involved in sexting behaviour.
What is sexting?
Sexting can be broadly defined as the use of technology to create and share intimate or sexual photos and videos, either of yourself or of others. It is a behaviour that can occur between youth but also between adults. For youth, the photos and videos created are referred to as ‘ youth-produced sexual imagery’.
The term ‘sexting’ is used widely by adults and the media, but it is not one that young people themselves would use to describe this behaviour. Terms used for this vary from country to country, but it is often referred to as ‘sending nudes’, ‘sexts’ or creating ‘nude selfies’.
How does it happen?
There are many different ways in which youth may engage in sexting. In cases where they create photos and videos of themselves, it commonly involves taking nude or partially nude photos of themselves using the camera on their device (smartphone, tablet, webcam on a laptop). For others, it may be taking photos or videos during sexual activity (either alone or with a partner). For some young people, their involvement may not involve creation but instead involve taking copies of someone else’s sexual photos/videos (such as screenshots, video capture of a screen, or saving copies) and sharing it with others.
This content can be shared in a variety of ways, including direct sending through MMS and messaging apps, posting to social media for other users to see, uploading to a website, or uploading/backing up to cloud-based storage services and sharing links to the content.
How common is this issue?
It is important to recognise that this issue does not impact on all children and young people, and the nature of the sexting behaviour can differ greatly from one instance to the next (as the following sections will explain).
The Insafe network of Safer Internet Centre helplines recorded that sexting was the main reason for contacting the helplines in 7 per cent of cases between July and September 2022.
Before going further, take a moment to think about the children or young people you work with. Considering their age, their level of development, and their understanding of sexual relationships, write down as many motives as you can think of for why a child or young person might engage in this behaviour (either as someone who creates content or shares it on).
Compare your list to the motives below – did you miss anything out?
What are the motives behind this behaviour?
There are a number of different reasons why children and young people may become involved in sexting behaviour. These include:
- Curiosity – A young person may take photos/videos of their body because they are curious and want to explore. This could occur during puberty when an adolescent body undergoes a large number of physical changes. This curiosity could be around bodies, sexual behaviours, or both.
- Flirtation – For some young people, sharing their nude photo (or asking other young people to share theirs) might be a form of flirtation and a way of expressing an interest in someone.
- Part of a relationship – For young people involved in a relationship, some may see taking and sharing intimate images of themselves with their partner as part of sexual enjoyment or to display intimacy and trust. Both partners may give consent and be willing to do this for each other.
- Peer pressure – Unlike the above, there are situations where young people may feel free pressured into taking and sending intimate content. This could be in the context of a relationship where one party pressures the other, possibly using threats of ending the relationship or other coercive behaviours to get a young person to agree. In other situations, it could involve an individual or group of peers who dare or challenge a young person into taking or sharing this content.
- Coercion or manipulation – Young people may find themselves in situations online where another person (either a peer or a predatory adult) coerces or manipulates them into taking and sending intimate content. This could involve blackmail or threatening to share private information, content or details unless a young person complies. It can also include situations where an adult has groomed or emotionally exploited a child to take and share intimate images of themselves.
- Bullying, sexual harassment or revenge – Some young people may fall victim to sexting used as a bullying tactic – they may be tricked into trusting someone, who then shares their content in order to upset or humiliate them. Intimate content of a young person could also be captured without their consent or awareness (such as taking a photo of someone using the toilet) and then sharing it with their peers. In some cases, sexual images and videos may be shared that are not of the intended target – a bully may claim a nude image is of a young person when it actually isn’t, purely to upset them or damage their reputation.
- Search for validation – A young person with low body confidence or low self-esteem may decide to create and share sexual imagery in an attempt to get attention and positive comments about their appearance.
- Body confidence – Conversely, a young person with very high body confidence might be happy to take and share sexual content in order to show off to others.
- Financial gain – Although sites such as OnlyFans are for adults (18+) only, there have been reports of young people creating accounts on such services in order to post their own sexual content to gain attention, gifts and financial payment from users.
- Unaware of potential consequences – For younger children, they may see sexting as a funny thing to do and may be naive to the potential consequences of taking and sharing these types of images and videos.
Is sexting against the law?
Your country has laws around the creation, possession and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). These laws were created in order to protect children from child sexual abusers and paedophiles interested in exploiting and harming children in order to create and obtain these types of sexual images and videos.
However, due to their nature, images and videos produced by young people when sexting also fall under this legislation. This makes the creation, possession and distribution of this content a crime, even if it only involves young people, and if it has been created and shared consensually.
For any child or young person at or above the age of criminal responsibility in their country, this makes them the perpetrators of a crime, while at the same time also the victim of their crime (if they are the child depicted in the content)! This can be a confusing concept for young people, and the law is not usually something they may actively consider before engaging in sexting behaviour.
While this behaviour by youth and their peers constitutes criminal activity, law enforcement in your country may approach this issue from a position of protecting or safeguarding youth, rather than criminalising them.
However, it is important to recognise that context is key – consensual sharing of nude photos between two young people in a relationship could be handled in a very different way to a young person who is maliciously sharing sexual videos of a former partner in order to upset or harass them or to damage their reputation. The age of the youth involved may also play a key role – a 16-year-old sexting with an 11-year-old would be treated differently to two 16-year-olds sexting, which would be handled differently to two 11-year-olds sexting.
What are the other issues around sexting?
Youth at different stages of development will commonly show an interest in, and display, different sexual behaviours, and this can sometimes lead to sexting behaviour. Particularly during the teenage years, risk-taking behaviour may increase as youth seek to understand themselves and the world around them. While the laws related to intimate content are a key issue, illegality is often not the biggest issue that affects young people involved in this behaviour.
Other consequences that impact young people include:
- Wider sharing and distribution – Although a young person may have shared an image or video willingly with someone else, if the recipient then chooses to share this content with others online, the content may end up in many locations online (and on devices) as well as be viewed by a much larger audience than the young person intended.
- Damage to relationships – If an image has been shared in trust with a partner or another person and they go on to share it with others, that can have a huge negative impact on the relationship and cause distress to the young person who shared the image – they were betrayed by someone they thought they could trust.
- Emotional and psychological well-being – Knowing that an intimate image has been shared and viewed by many people online can be deeply distressing to a young person. This loss of control over the situation can affect their well-being in a number of ways, from loss of confidence through to psychological issues such as negative body image, depression and (in rare cases) acts of self-harm.
- Reputational damage – Comments from others (both online and offline) can lead to gossip, rumours and allegations that may be untrue. All of this can greatly affect a young person’s reputation as well as their well-being.
- Risk of exploitation – The sharing of intimate content through technology can increase the risk of a young person being exploited. This could be by a peer or adult who wishes to manipulate them further by using the content to blackmail the young person – failure to follow the demands of the exploiter can lead to the intimate content being sent to family or friends to shame a young person. Content could also be obtained non-consensually by an exploiter (such as through hacking accounts and stealing content, or capturing images/video of a young person without their knowledge) and then used as a way to manipulate a young person.
- Hosting alongside other illegal content – The INHOPE Annual Report 2021 describes a huge increase in reports to the INHOPE hotlines of CSAM material that appeared to have been self-generated (taken and transmitted by under 18s). Sexting is one way in which self-generated material is created. This self-generated intimate content was found on websites, hosting services and forums alongside other types of CSAM. A nude selfie sent by one young person to another may not stay private; if shared, it could end up on sites and services used by child sexual abusers.
Is sexting between adults different to between youth?
The answer to this question is yes, and no.
Fundamentally, if two individuals are adults (aged 18 or above), then the intimate content they may create is likely to be legal – it depicts adults, not children. However, extreme depictions may break other laws depending on the country they reside in.
Despite this, many of the motivations and consequences detailed previously apply to adults in the same way as they apply to young people, especially in regard to how it may impact on the relationships, well-being, and reputation of the adults involved.
In addition, adults may face greater consequences from sextortion, where a perpetrator uses their intimate content to extort money or further content from their victim. While this can happen to young people, adults (often male) are more frequently targeted due to the greater likelihood that they will have money to pay a perpetrator.
While sexting involving youth is covered under a country’s laws around child sexual abuse material, there may be other laws in your country that relate to non-consensual intimate image abuse (where an adult shares or distributes another adult’s intimate content with the intention of harassing, causing upset or damaging their reputation). In these instances, sharing another adult’s intimate content may be illegal and can be reported to local law enforcement.
What can I do if I’m worried about a young person sexting?
If you become aware that the children or young people you work with are engaging in sexting behaviour, or that their intimate content has been shared online, then it is important to consider the following:
- Be open and supportive – If a young person has disclosed this issue to you, they are looking for your compassion and support. It can be a difficult thing for a young person to talk to an adult about, so telling you demonstrates the trust they place in you to support them.
- Try not to judge – It can be tempting to tell young people that they made a mistake or broke the law, but they are probably already aware of this! Approach any discussions calmly and professionally and make it clear that your intention is to help, not to tell them off – they may already feel upset enough by events as it is.
- Seek help – Your school may have established processes for dealing with child protection/safeguarding issues. You should follow these procedures to seek help from others within school, or agencies outside of school. You can also contact your country’s Safer Internet Centre helpline for further guidance and advice. If you have concerns that a child has been exploited or groomed, then you can also report this to local law enforcement.
- Be careful with evidence – For many other online issues (such as cyberbullying), the advice is to collect evidence of the behaviour (screenshots, video capture, etc.). However, when it comes to sexting, it is important that you do not create any additional copies of intimate content involving youth (such as screenshots, saving a copy of a photo, video capture, printing out, forwarding in an email, and so on). Actions of this nature can constitute a criminal offence, as you have created new copies of child sexual abuse material. This can put you into a very challenging position, both professionally and personally. It is best to ensure that any evidence is given directly to someone in school responsible for dealing with these issues, or passed on to local law enforcement.
- Take prompt action – Moving quickly once you become aware of an issue can help prevent the spread of intimate content, and provide the right support for the young person/young people involved.
How else can I help my students understand this issue?
Taking prompt action once you are aware of a sexting issue is important, but a proactive approach to working with and educating your students can help them manage the risks around sexting. Things to discuss and consider include:
- The law – Helping your students to be familiar with the law(s) in your country around child sexual abuse material and intimate image abuse is important. These laws are there to protect youth (even though they may break these laws by sexting) and greater awareness can help them understand what is acceptable or not acceptable to do online and through technology.
- Talk about healthy relationships – Many sexting issues arise from situations where things go wrong in relationships. Talking openly with your students about consent, peer pressure, harassment and trust in relationships can help them recognise risk factors that might lead them into a sexing situation.
- Explore strategies – An awareness of risk is one thing, but to truly manage risk, you need strategies that work to keep you and others protected. Helping your students to understand how to ask for, receive and decline to give consent are important – not just for sexting issues but for many other situations where they may feel pressured to do something. Different students might wish to use different strategies, and some strategies might work better in some contexts than others. Exploring through role-play and ‘what if…?’ scenarios can help students develop strategies that work for them.
- Discuss the consequences – It can be uncomfortable to explore this with your students, but helping them to recognise the impact that intimate content sharing can have on their well-being, relationships and reputation can help them make informed decisions when it comes to their bodies and the images/videos they might create. It can sometimes be helpful to look at these issues through the use of news stories or plots from films/TV shows so that students do not have to talk about personal experiences.
- Teach how to get help and support – It is vital that your students know what they can do (and who they can turn to) if they are worried about the issues that can arise from sexting. Work with them to understand the reporting tools on the games and apps they use – reporting a child’s intimate content should result in removal, as this content breaks the law. For younger students, a useful strategy could be teaching them words or phrases they can say to a trusted adult to alert them that they need help.
How can you say ‘no’ to someone pressuring you for a nude photo?
This is an issue that your students might face online, and each of them might tackle it in a very different way. Some may be confident to say ‘no’ directly and forcefully, and some may choose to ignore the requests until they go away. Others might feel pressured enough to eventually give in.
Imagine you were being pressured by someone online to do something they don’t want to do. How could you respond in a way that would protect you but make it clear that your answer is ‘no’?
Would you use a message or particular words/phrases? Would you respond in a more visual way – by sending back a specific image, GIF, emoji or meme? Would you use humour or sarcasm as a way to make your point?
Make a list of, draw, or collect the different ways in which you might respond.
Having your own strategies may help you identify strategies that would work for your students.
Further information and resources
Want to learn more about sexting? These resources may be useful:
- CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘sexting’ allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
- Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for ‘sexting’ for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
- INHOPE – Safer Internet Centre hotlines belong to the global INHOPE network of 50 hotlines for reporting child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Details of your country’s hotline can be found on the INHOPE website and on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) platform.
- StopNCII.org – A service for adults (18+) to get help and support, as well as limit the spread of non-consensual intimate image abuse.