The sexualisation of culture, and of children and young people

Back in November 2021, the Insafe network of European Safer Internet Centres (SICs) took part in a two-day online training meeting*. A key topic of discussion was the sexualisation of culture and of children and young people; a complex and increasingly concerning set of online risks that many SICs find themselves having to address on a regular basis. Similar topics had also been raised in a Deep Dive session at the 2021 edition of Safer Internet Forum just a month previous, where a panel discussion had focused on harmful online content, experiences and solutions.

Date 2022-03-31 Author BIK Team Section awareness, news Topic grooming, love, relationships, sexuality (online), media literacy/education, sexting, sextortion, sexual harassment Audience organisations and industry, parents and carers, research, policy and decision makers, teachers, educators and professionals
A girl being photographed from inside a car, reflected on the photographer

Here, we investigate some of the challenges and possible responses, drawing on network discussions and wider knowledge and research in this field.

Sexualisation of young people: an increasingly concerning issue affecting all genders

Capitalising on the capacity-building nature of the Insafe network, the training meeting discussion drew on network experiences, projects and resources to address issues pertaining to a whole host of issues linked to sexualisation. Young people are exposed to questionable or inappropriate content at a younger age as a result of the increase in the appearance of sexualised images in digital and media outlets, advertising, entertainment, and other popular culture outlets, the emergence of new forms of sexual experiences, and the apparent lack of regulations and limitations to children’s access and consumption of such content.

There has been heightened awareness among the Insafe network about issues regarding the increasing sexualisation of culture and of young people online. These include – but are not limited to – the following risks: 

  • Sexualisation of young people, and especially minors, with the receipt of unwelcome sexual requests, comments and content. It is worth noting that this can not only come from adult sexual predators, but also from peers and other young people.
  • Exposure of children to an increasingly sexualised culture, and to inappropriate content. The exposure has increased over time and, unfortunately, society appears to have become desensitised to much of this type of content.
  • Online sexual harassment, defined as unwanted sexual conduct on any digital platform, and recognised as a form of sexual violence.
  • Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos.
  • Sextortion, coercion and threats: a person receiving sexual threats, being coerced to participate in sexual behaviour online, or blackmailed with sexual content. 
  • Transactional sexting: a new online form of sexual exploitation whereby intimate images are shared in exchange for money. Young people can be lured to engage in such activities for popularity or financial reasons, but equally young people are increasingly accessing such content as consumers.

Niels Van Paemel, Policy Advisor at Child Focus, the Belgian Safer Internet Centre, provided some insights on the topic during the training meeting.

While it is not easy to pinpoint the root causes of the sexualisation of young people, it is a dynamic common to many cultures that does not occur out of nowhere – the narrative implies that children are growing up in a world where they learn such behaviours from their surroundings and upbringing. The sexualisation of culture plays a fundamental role here: the increased sexualised content in mainstream media and social media platforms, the use of sexual content for advertising and marketing purposes, and the general pressure on children and young people to provide a highly curated image of themselves online even from a young age, are all factors contributing to the sexualisation of young people.

Indeed, what emerged from the discussions among SIC representatives is that children – in some cases as young as nine – have experienced sexting or have been involved in non-consensual sharing of intimate images. It should be noted, however, that it is difficult to ascertain the true extent of the issue due to the ethical limitations of conducting research with such a young age group.

The Belgian Safer Internet Centre has found that the sexual objectification and sexualisation of young people is not only a concerning online risk, but it is something that can affect their mental health in the long run, as it’s heavily influenced by society and deeply rooted in the culture of many countries. In addition, it is a gendered issue, contributing to the perpetuation of harmful gender stereotypes and normalising sexual aggression or violence. If media outlets portray gender-based violence as trivial, then it will be less likely that victims will want to report it. Equally, if media outlets normalise unrealistic body standards, this can negatively impact the self-confidence and mental well-being of young people. 

As an example, research conducted for the Dove Self Esteem Project found that only 11 per cent of girls worldwide would call themselves beautiful, and six in ten girls avoid participating in life activities because of concerns about the way they look. Australian girls list body image as one of their top three worries in life, while 81 per cent of 10-year-old girls in the United States say they are afraid of being fat.

It is important to underline that the risks around the sexualisation of culture affect all genders – girls, boys, and those young people who may be questioning their own identities but feel pressured by the media narrative and social expectations around gender. Niels surveyed the participants of the training meeting with a poll, asking “Who are the biggest victims of the sexualisation of culture?” None of the participants voted for option a) Boys and men, 46 per cent voted for b) Girls and women, and 53 per cent voted for c) Everyone. Indeed, the poll suggests that gender stereotypes linked to the sexual sphere are enduring and are harmful to all. Likewise, media coverage has suggested that although girls are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment online, the narrative of considering girls and boys as either always victims or perpetrators is unhelpful as research clearly shows this is not the case.

Lack of reporting and normalisation of abuse

Looking to wider research in this field, the study “Understanding and Combatting Youth Experiences of Image-Based Sexual Harassment and Abuse” by Jessica Ringrose, Kaitlyn Regehr and Betsy Milne found that participants rarely reported their experiences of image-based sexual harassment and abuse. Indeed, failing to report further contributes to the sexualisation of culture and normalisation of sexual abuse. In the report, it is stated that only 5 per cent (5 out of 106 surveyed young people) reported telling their parents and carers and an even smaller 2 per cent (2 of out the 106 surveyed) reported the abuse to their school. When asked about the reasons behind choosing not to report, the survey respondents mentioned that the social media platforms were considered useless for reporting purposes, and that they felt it was better to block than report, especially on those social media platforms where images disappear after a short span of time, not allowing them to save or screenshot the image as evidence of the inappropriate behaviour. On Snapchat, for example, the platform reports a screen save to the sender which could put the victim at risk of further harassment. Some participants argued not reporting when contacted by adult strangers, companies or others on social media apps, because “they didn’t think of it”, demonstrating there is a lack of awareness regarding the reporting tools available to young people – and when they are aware, it is seen as generally unhelpful. 

Similar results have been highlighted in the Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges by Ofsted. Aside from confirming persisting stereotypes around gender, in the survey, nearly 90 per cent of girls, and nearly 50 per cent of boys stated that being sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos “happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers”. 92 per cent of girls and 74 per cent of boys stated that sexist name-calling “happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers”. Young people feel that these incidents occur so frequently that it has become “commonplace” and that there is no point in reporting them. Other than the normalisation of sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases, the young people surveyed, and especially girls, identified the following reasons for failing to report: the risk of being ostracised by peers or getting peers into trouble, being worried about how adults will react because they think they will not be believed or that they will be blamed, and the thought that once they talk to an adult about it, the process will be out of their control.

Pathways: How digital design puts children at risk

In July 2021, 5Rights Foundation published the report Pathways: How digital design puts children at risk, highlighting the way in which children were being exposed to, and even ‘recommended’, distressing and inappropriate – and sometimes even illegal - material and activity online through algorithms and similar. The Pathways report was the outcome of a research project undertaken by Revealing Reality on behalf of 5Rights Foundation, and was shared at a session at the Safer Internet Forum 2021 (view the session recording here).

The experiment consisted of following the online activities of a number of young people over a long period of time, but rather than simply asking them what they did on social media platforms, trackers were installed onto their devices to actually see what was happening on their social media feeds. After gathering sufficient data, the researchers set up avatar accounts representing young people to see if these accounts would also be exposed to harmful content. Indeed, the researchers found that the accounts were exposed to all sorts of inappropriate content, including explicit sexual content, links to adult sites, and more.

The experiment demonstrated both how easy it can be to access inappropriate content for those young people seeking it on social media platforms, and that in some cases they are exposed to it without actually proactively seeking it. Similar concerning results were obtained around advertising on social media platforms: the avatar accounts were shown ads for adult content even though the platforms were aware of the young age of the account holder. Although age-appropriate design codes should help in preventing inappropriate content from being shared with minors, this safeguard is extremely easy to work around by not stating your real age on the platforms.

The report also highlighted how design features in social media platforms are optimised to meet specific business objectives, looping children into highly automated systems designed to maximise attention, time spent on the platform and interaction with all sorts of content. More alarmingly, the automated pathways to harmful content – such as graphic images of self-harm, extreme diets, pornography, extremist content and introductions to adult strangers – were particularly effective, whereas such material should never have been offered to a user registered as a child, in fact breaking the guidelines of the platforms themselves.

Read a detailed summary of the Pathways: How digital design puts children at risk research here.

The rise of transactional sexting

Discussion at the training meeting also picked up on other emerging and concerning aspects of sexualisation. For example, the Belgian Safer Internet Centre presented the findings of its exploration of transactional sexting, and in particular of OnlyFans and its increasing presence on other social platforms, which is finding an audience with young people as both content consumers and content creators. The SIC has found that despite the limitations for minors on the platform, workarounds are rather easy to find, for example by intertwining different social media accounts with an OnlyFans account, referring to it with phrases such as “you know where to go”. Equally, the platform only shields inappropriate content from those minors attempting to sell content, not those trying to purchase it. Catfishing and fake profiles are only some of the online risks connected to the platform.

Because of the extended criticism from civil society about the rise of platforms that facilitate the sharing of intimate pictures, such as OnlyFans, the existing platforms have strengthened their policies to make it difficult for minors to circulate sensitive content. As a result, other workarounds have been found, even through existing photo-sharing social networks such as Snapchat or Instagram.

While industry and other stakeholders can sometimes be reluctant when it comes to implementing further restrictions, it is important to educate the whole of society about the sexualisation of culture and of young people, and the related peer pressure and internalised behaviours that are embedded in each culture. To further explore the topic, INHOPE (the International Association of Internet Hotlines) will host a webinar on the Rise of transactional sexting and self-generated content on 13 April 2022 which will share some of the topics raised during the training meeting in a public forum. Find more information about the event here.

Some examples of Safer Internet Centre responses

Recognising that education and awareness raising lies at the root of influencing online behaviours, during the training meeting, three speakers from the network shared possible solutions to address issues relating to the increasing sexualisation of children and young people online.

New  guide for a sex positive media education approach

Julia Alajärvi, Senior Adviser at the Finnish Safer Internet Centre presented a new guide for sex positive media education: Media sex literacy with a sex positive approach – a guide for educators of teens. The guide addresses how to discuss sexuality in media education, how sex is portrayed in the media, and how to support youth in navigating sexual content online.

A constructive approach to seeing sexuality as a positive and natural element of life, as well as a beneficial health resource, allows for more open conversations about it, allows for more acceptance of differences and nuances in demonstrating sexuality, and promotes the healthy sexual development of youth. This approach is in line with the Finnish Safer Internet Centre’s more general approach of promoting critical thinking when using media outlets.

The guide consists of the following sections: an introduction to the topic, Sex in the media, Social media, and Porn. Each section contains a glossary, lesson plans and links to additional materials, guides and helplines. It is currently available in Finnish – and is soon to be published in Swedish as well – on the website of the Finnish Safer Internet Centre.

Project deSHAME

Ellie Proffitt, Education and Youth Engagement Manager at Childnet, part of the UK Safer Internet Centre. presented Project deSHAME which aims to tackle peer-to-peer online sexual harassment by empowering local communities to work together to increase awareness and reporting among young people. The project is a collaboration between Childnet (UK), Kek Vonal (Hungary), Save the Children (Denmark) and UCLan (UK), and is co-financed by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme of the European Union.

More specifically, the project is divided into two phases. In phase 1 (13–17-year-olds), it tackles four types of online sexual harassment: the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos; exploitation, coercion and sexual threats; sexualised bullying (that is, a person being excluded from a group or community with the use of sexual content that upsets or discriminates against them), and unwanted sexualisation. It is important to raise awareness among children and young people of how and where to report, and about the importance of creating a safe space and opportunities for discussing complex dynamics such as victim blaming and consent. The experience and impact of online sexual harassment is unique to the individual and can be felt in the short-term but also can have long-term impacts on mental health and well-being.

Phase 2 collected information about the perception of online sexual harassment for 9–12-year-olds. The following areas were identified as an outcome of several focus groups, and demonstrate that the sexualisation of culture, and unacceptable behaviours linked to it, comes in many forms:

  • Bullying someone online for a behaviour considered to be outside of common gender stereotypes (for example, bullying a boy for watching a make-up video tutorials).
  • ‘‘Upskirting’’: taking pictures underneath someone’s clothes without their knowledge and consent (for example, taking a photo up someone’s shorts on the school bus).
  • Editing photos to make them sexual or gendered, for example adding emojis on a photo to represent sexual body parts.
  • Sexting, or sending a nude or nearly nude image of a peer to others.
  • Using offensive homophobic language.
  • Sharing online pornography because it was seen as ‘funny’ by the sender.

Quantitative and qualitative research was conducted with 13–17-year-olds in Denmark, Hungary and the United Kingdom as part of the project, designed to provide a unique insight into their experiences of online sexual harassment. Over 3,000 young people across the three countries took part in the research, as well as teachers and educators, law enforcement and other professionals working with children and young people.

An open-source toolkit was then created to help other countries and organisations run their own projects to tackle these issues. Indeed, the methodology was soon adopted by other countries. Last year, the same project was carried out in Croatia. From September to December 2021, research was conducted on a sample of 2,016 high school students by the Croatian SIC and partners, and the findings were shared during an online event for Safer Internet Day 2022. Beyond the Insafe network, the project was also carried out in Serbia in partnership with the Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. Here, findings revealed that most respondents reported feeling forced to share sexual content and had experienced cyberbullying online.

Overall, the project identified a range of key factors that underpin the emergence of online sexual harassment. As shown below, online sexual harassment emerges from a complex combination of societal, peer, relationship and developmental factors, mediated and facilitated by digital technology.

Access the Project deSHAME executive summary and report on the Childnet website.

The online platform

Nel Broothaerts, Chief Prevention and Development Officer at the Belgian Safer Internet Centre considered how gender stereotypes affect the way in which we look at sexting and the sexualisation of children and young people. Over time, the Belgian SIC has shifted the focus from raising awareness about the importance of not sharing intimate pictures online to actually recognising the importance of supporting young people to explore their sexuality in a safe and consensual way, hence normalising consensual sexting.

The SIC additionally started to explore how gender stereotypes and double standards affect the way we perceive sex and sexual behaviour, as this plays a role in sexting. For example, a girl whose image is spread without consent is often subject to victim blaming, whereas boys often have to deal with toxic masculinity.

The Belgian SIC’s approach to the challenges is to develop tailor-made conversations. Educational responses were designed, working with children and young people themselves, to properly consider and address the issues, including working on peer pressure versus personal integrity. (currently available in French and Dutch) is an online platform for adolescents that combines sex and sexuality with gender, with a focus on opinion forming and thinking, and then sharing it among peers. It is designed to be used in group discussions, while still allowing for individual introspection. Ideal social settings for the use of this tool are schools, social work settings, and youth organisations. The tool is also designed to bypass ‘’social answering’’; that is the desire for users to answer in the way that they think others would want them to, or would expect from them.

Other resources on the BIK portal

The various topics surrounding the sexualisation of children and young people are a key focus in Better Internet for Kids (BIK) project efforts. On the BIK portal, we collect tips, guidelines, resources and knowledge from Safer Internet Centres all around Europe. To give some examples:

  • Sexting: The dangers of online communication and the importance of education: in this article from the Maltese Safer Internet Centre, the Malta Personal and Social Development Association (MPSDA) discussed with three experts about how children and adolescents are using the internet and what repercussions they could face, and specifically tackled sexting, body shaming, especially when pressured by unrealistic media narratives and representations.
  • Hidden dangers of the internet explained for parents and carers: this article from the Romanian Safer Internet Centre addresses parents and carers, with the aim of informing them on how to deal with their children being exposed to inappropriate content, receiving or being requested to send private images, and grooming.
  • Irish Safer Internet Centre raises awareness of new Coco’s Law: from the point of view of policy making, the Irish Safer Internet Centre sheds a light on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill (Coco’s Law), which criminalises the non-consensual distribution of intimate images in Ireland.

Likewise, the “Insafe insights…” series on the BIK portal draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations. Drawing on statistics and helpline case studies, this series aims to outline different issues and some possible responses, while also pointing to sources of further information and support. Find more resources, advice, and support on the following:

  • Sexting is increasingly common today, but the risks of non-consensual sharing of intimate materials exist, exposing the victim to harassment, extortion, cyberbullying, and other online risks.
  • Sextortion: the situation where someone is blackmailed and coerced to send inappropriate images or money to avoid such images being shared widely online. The perpetrator usually possesses sensitive content of the individual already, and uses it to either extort money or to gain access to further content.

On the Better Internet for Kids resource gallery, you can access various educational resources and videos that Safer Internet Centres in Europe have developed over the years. These are aimed at helping teachers, parents and carers, and children and young people, to discover the online world safely. The resource gallery is regularly updated, and the materials are available in a wide range of European languages. You can filter the available content by language or by keyword: for example, the keyword search ‘sexting’ brings up a valuable selection of results.

If you wish to stay updated about the work of the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres and other stakeholders in the field, visit the news section of the BIK portal regularly, and subscribe to the quarterly BIK bulletin for news and resources on the latest trends and challenges online.


* Training meetings are an opportunity for the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres to facilitate the sharing of experiences, guidelines and good practice between network countries, to debate emerging challenges, and explore areas of common ground and opportunities for closer working between awareness raising, helpline, and youth participation strands.

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