In our day and age, we cannot imagine running our lives without mobile phones. For the safety of our children (so parents always have contact with them) children at young ages already are kitted with their own mobile phones. And of course, we give them ones with cameras, Wi-Fi and the ability to handle graphics as we want our children to take pictures, communicate with their friends and play games. But, to a certain degree, we are allowing a potential problem into our homes when we give children mobile phones.
Unfortunately, one of the issues with mobile phones is that it is an easy way to reach the user directly and it is through apps like Snapchat, Tinder, WhatsApp and Kik (not exclusively, but predominantly) that sexting is taking place.
So, what is sexting? Sexting has been described as the new flirting and is part of cyberbullying. It involves the sending and receiving of explicit messages, images or videos of a sexual nature. It includes explicit texts, nude or partially nude images sent to minors. This content is usually uploaded on a mobile device, from where it can be loaded onto social networking sites and shared further. The images can then be sent to or from a friend or just someone your child has met online.
It is still illegal to take, make or share an indecent image or video of a child under the age of 18 – even if it is consensual. The police forces in England and Wales recorded 6 238 underage “sexting” offences in 2016-17 – this is a rate of 17 per day!
Children think this is harmless and see it as a joke, an easy way to show someone you like them and trust them or just a cool thing to do! They may not realise the consequences of sharing personal information and how it can be potentially harmful to them in the future. It is an offence under the Children’s Act, 2005 as amended, and Section 19 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and related matters) Amendment Act, 2007.
Sending and sharing nude or semi-nude photos or videos and/or sexually suggestive messages via mobile phone texting or instant messaging (sexting) between children may, therefore, depending on the content, also fall within the ambit of the prohibition of possessing or creating, producing and distributing child pornography. It is important to note that if a child aids, incites, instructs, commands or procures another child to take and send such material, he or she will be guilty of an offence.
Although some children are willingly exchanging images, many may regret sharing the messages, images, and videos after they have sent or uploaded them. Once it is out there, there is no going back! Once a photo or video has been shared, there is no way of knowing how many people have saved it, tagged it or shared it. What was sent as a show-off to friends and peers, may become a burden that follows you around as it can be shared repeatedly. This, in turn, can be used to exploit young adults, extort additional photos, sexual favours and sometimes even money from victims.
What can I do if I suspect my child is involved in sexting?
- Talk to your child: encourage open dialogue about appropriate information to share with others online and offline. Be approaching and understanding - discuss sexting and make sure that your child understands what it is and what it involves. Show that you understand that it may be a way of reflecting natural adolescent curiosity about nudity, bodies and exploring sexuality – but also explain why it is important that they think twice before sharing.
- Explain the legal implications: children and young adults may not realise that what they are doing is illegal. You must explain to the child that, even with consent, it remains illegal to take a sexual picture of a child under the age of 18. This is also true for selfies!
- Explain repercussions: It is important to make the child understand that once they have sent the image, they are no longer in control of it. Messages, images, and videos intended for an individual may end up where the whole world can have access to it. Even if they completely trust someone, other people using their phone might accidentally see it. And, later in life, when they are applying for work, it may affect their online reputation. It has become customary for employers to screen the online profiles of potential employees before making a final decision.
- Get the image deleted: your best will be to ask the person the image was shared with to delete the image. You can also report the website if it was posted on a site, to get the image deleted.
- When your child tells you about an image they received, firstly reassure them that they did the right thing to report this to you. Establish if your child requested the image or if they received it unwillingly. If this image was sent by an adult, you must report this as there may be sexual exploitation or grooming involved. Show your child how to use the block button on their devices and favourite apps to stop people from sending them unwanted messages. You can also set up parental control with your internet service provider or on the child’s phone to prevent access to harmful content.
A mobile phone is definitely very helpful and can play a crucial role in the safety of your child – but we have to understand that these devices can have devastating impacts on the lives of young adults if abused. Protect your child against this form of exploitation!