Sexting – what every parent should know

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Listen to child psychologist Kimberley O'Brien talking about the dangers of sexting.

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Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

At a glance

  • Sexting involves the use of a mobile phone and the transmission of a sexual image or message between two people.
  • Educate your child about what it is and why it's illegal.
  • Give your child suggestions of what to do if they receive a sexting message.
  • Discuss the consequences of sexting and the damage that can be done to reputations in the long term on the internet.

Sexting - what parents need to know

 

 

transcript
 

James O'Loghlin

Welcome to School A to Z. Hello, I'm James O'Loghlin.

We're talking about the internet a bit in this segment because it's one of those areas where kids often know more than us parents, because the internet wasn't around when some of us were growing up. This week we're going to talk about something called ‘sexting', or ‘teen sexting'.

Kimberley O'Brien is a child psychologist from the Quirky Kid Psychology Clinic and she's going to tell us what it is, and why we need to be aware of it.

Thanks for joining us Kimberley. What is sexting?

KimberleyO'Brien

OK. Sexting involves the use of a mobile phone and the transmission of a sexual image or message between two people.

James

And tell me how it can come about, typically?

Kimberley

It often comes about quite innocently in the playground. Kids might be mucking about with a mobile phone, a photo might be taken of a body part – you know a picture down someone's pants or up someone's dress as a joke when someone's walking up the stairs.

And this image might be sent around the whole school, so reputations are ruined, and this is what's called sexting.

It could also be done in a sexual relationship, or a relationship where there are two consenting adults and they're sending these images as a form of flirtation.

James

Oh, OK. If adults do it, if they take images of each other and then send them to someone else – I don't know why you'd do that – but if someone wanted to do that, then it's kind of different from kids doing it.

Kimberley

That's right. The thing with kids doing it or adolescents doing it is they could be later charged with being in possession of child pornography. Just as if an adult was in possession of an image of a child in a pornographic position, that would also be child pornography.

I think the problem is that children and adolescents are quite unaware of how serious the situation could be – because they are in fact breaking the law.

James

Right, so it's something that starts out as possibly a playground practical joke and that can be disturbing enough, but it can actually be far more serious.

Kimberley

Absolutely. There were I think 21 youths charged in Victoria last year in possession of child pornography, and it was you know sexting, which they saw as, you know, fairly light and humorous. But it can also be a form of cyberbullying as well. So kids just need to be aware that this is not something they should just pass around between friends and they should talk to someone about it if they do receive an image like this.

James

And I guess, before you take a photo, think. And before anyone takes your photo, because so many people have got cameras attached to their phones now, have a bit of a think too?

Kimberley

Absolutely. Think about the consequences and the reputations in the long term, because I guess the internet will have a memory longer than a lot of kids at school, so these things could come back to haunt students. And often it's a little bit of one-upmanship when adolescents are going through that – looking at their self-image and trying to look sexier than the next girl. Sometimes girls competing amongst themselves, so they want to send a sexy image to their boyfriend to look like they're cool and they're in. But these are the sorts of things that can lead to huge problems later on.

James

Now this is a world that is often not one that is shared with parents, parents might be totally oblivious to it, so what can parents do to help their kids stay the right side of appropriateness and everything else?

Kimberley

Yeah – staying on the right side of the law. A good point is to start talking to kids about what's legal and what's not. And I think also to ask kids to be open about what they're doing with their mobile phones, you know, looking over their shoulder to see what images they're sending and what images they have in their phone memory I think is important, even though adolescents are often really private and protective of these things. It should be something a family can look at and share, looking at who their friends are and what they've been doing, without having anything that's too secretive, because I think that leads to trouble down the track.

James

It's tricky isn't it, because I suppose one way of preventing it is (I suppose you can still get them) getting mobile phones that don't have the capacity to send images. But then probably 99 per cent of the time kids are using that for things that are enjoyable and fun and even creative.

Kimberley

Yeah, this is true. I think the majority of times kids do use mobile phones and cameras appropriately and it's great for their creativity, but it's just the small percentage of kids that use it in this way. But with the sexting phenomenon, it's actually gotten really huge in America and in Australia there's a lot of information on the internet about it, so if kids weren't aware of it they soon will be, so it's important for parents to talk about it first, to set the boundaries in terms of the Australian law and to let them know it's not wise to do something they may regret later on.

James

If you've got an adolescent who's going through that adolescent stage where talking to their parents isn't the coolest thing in the world, how would you suggest you break down the barriers and initiate and carry on a conversation about this quite sensitive topic?

Kimberley

I think it's great to have lots of information around the family home, even putting things up on the fridge like interesting articles or sites that parents have stumbled across. I think it's important to just raise you know conversations over breakfast or dinner about, "You wouldn't believe what I saw this morning on TV". To bring up the topic and then to ask the child to, you know, maybe participate or to explain something that might have happened in their own school that relates. I think it's important just to start the ball rolling with conversation to let them know what the parents think about it and what their opinion is of it, ask them to participate.

James

And ideally I guess that's a process that happens, you know, not when they're or a process that begins not when they're 16 and have a mobile phone, but hopefully some years earlier.

Kimberley

Definitely James, I hope that the communication lines are open from a very young age because, even things that may be affecting older cousins or older neighbours should be talked about with younger kids as well. Because they're the role models, after all, so it should be a community approach to these issues which affect the greater community.

James

I got my first mobile phone when I was ... about 30 I think. What age do you reckon kids should get mobile phones?

Kimberley

I think it's a really hot topic, I know a lot of parents are starting to get kids phones from even eight or nine. I think 12 myself is reasonable, because at that age you know they're usually a little more independent. They can go shopping by themselves and need to be picked up after the movies, so as far as things about safety and communication, it's important at that age.

Any younger I think is probably unnecessary. It does often happen in families that have gone through separation and divorce, that the kids become the communicator between parents, and parents want to have access to the kids at all times. So there are special circumstances that might suggest that the kids can have phones earlier, but it's a case-by-case example.

James

And when you buy your first bike, you don't get a 24-speed, geared one with all of the cons, you get a pretty basic one. Is there an argument for when, if you are going to get your child their first phone at 12 or something, for really trying to get a pretty basic one, so that they learn its primary purpose first before they get into all this other business?

Kimberley

I think so. I think it's important to get a simple model and to have set limits, on say just calling out or just texting out you know if it's a pick-up situation and like you have to pick me up after the movies or shopping – something you know in terms of communicating with parents. But there need to be limits around what their credit balance might be for the month – not unlimited I would say, having, you know like a $30 limit on the credit. There will be a lot of pressure to buy more credit, but I think kids need be set – and be happy with – those boundaries. And parents aren't setting themselves up for something that's going to be really expensive down the track.

James

Yes, and just returning to sexting, some kids might be aware of it before their parents are, although after listening to this perhaps some parents are aware of it before their kids are – should they initiate a conversation with their kids?

Do you suggest they say, "Look I've just become aware of this. Now with your phone, I don't know if you know anything at all about it, but if you don't, just be aware there are some pretty serious things here"?

Kimberley

I think it's the parents' responsibility as well the teachers' at school. There should be education within the system to talk about how mobile phones can be positive but also negative. That you can have some situations like sexting that can be quite dangerous for individuals so that if teachers don't raise it and parents don't raise it, then the young person raises the issue of sexting, I think it's just important to provide further information, do some research yourself and put that information out there for the kids to find around the house, and take them through it if they're not interested in talking about it, just point by point. Keep it simple and put some information up on the fridge

James

Well we do that with other things that are potentially hazardous, don't we, like riding a bike or doing anything that could be dangerous, before we let kids do it?  Because we're aware of the dangers. But with this, a lot of parents are less aware because we have less experience with it.

Kimberley

That's right. I think we're all just learning as we go, so sometimes you just deal with issues as they come up. But having those lines of communication open as we talked about is really important.

I think also just maybe having little forums with teachers and parents to talk about how best to address new technology, small groups of kids to explore different issues that might have come up that maybe teachers and parents aren't even aware of. So, just time in a personal development class or in an IT class to talk about new technology and any issues about how to deal with it, amongst kids and teachers.

James

Great Kimberley, thank you very much.

Kimberly

Thank you

James

Thanks for listening. For more information check out the School A to Z website at www.schoolatoz.com.au.



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