Some young people send and receive sexually suggestive naked, or nearly-naked, photos and videos. Known as sexting, these images are often exchanged via mobiles (by text message, email or Bluetooth) or social networking websites, and have become unfortunate “relationship currency”.

What do I need to know about sexting? 

Sexting appears to be on the increase, with research by UK charity Beatbullying revealing that more than a third of under 18s in the UK have received an offensive or distressing sexual image via their mobile or computer. It’s therefore crucial that you understand what sexting is and what action you can take as part of your overall approach to your child’s safety on the internet and mobiles.

Did you know?
According to Common Sense Media, kids engage in sexting to show off, entice someone, show interest in someone or prove commitment

Some young people are known to engage in sexting scenarios, including:

  • Two people who are in a relationship exchanging images with each other, either with the subject’s consent or under duress.
  • Partners sharing images (that were meant to be private) outside the relationship (eg passing them around the school community). A young person whose relationship has come to an end could be particularly vulnerable if they exchanged intimate images with their ex.
  • Two people – who aren’t yet in a relationship but where one person hopes to be – sharing images with each other, either with the subject’s consent or under duress. According to a US survey in 2009, more than a third of teenagers say that exchanging this kind of content makes dating more likely.
  • Recipients of images that have been taken/passed on without the subject’s permission sharing them with other people (eg texting or emailing them to friends).

As the author of a major report by Pew Internet about teens and sexting says: “Teens explained to us how sexually suggestive images have become a form of relationship currency…These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other. And they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun.”

Whilst young people might start sexting ‘for a laugh’, there can be extremely serious reputation and safety consequences for the subject of the image, the senders and the recipients. In the digital world, images can be copied, manipulated, posted online or sent to other people within seconds.

Images can be easily passed on to other people using mobiles and other devices – what started off as a private message between two people can quickly reach fellow students and even complete strangers. This can lead to cyberbullying and humiliation.

If the images are posted online – on a social networking website or blog, for example – they could remain there forever and be seen by anyone, including university admissions tutors and future employers.

The police are concerned that such images could be accessed by sex offenders on the Web who might then make contact with the subject of the photo or video, pretend to be the person in the image as a means of contacting other young people, or circulate the image further.

If someone takes, holds or shares indecent images of anyone under the age of 18, they could be breaking the law under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Although many young people would rather talk to their peers about issues related to sexting (according to a survey by the South West Grid for Learning, 70 per cent of teenagers would turn to their friends for advice rather than parents or teachers), it’s vital that you discuss this growing trend with your son or daughter.

What action can I take? 

Talk to your child about sexting now, just as you would about any internet safety or mobile safety issue. It’s especially important if they’re an older teenager who might be in (or considering starting) a relationship. Don’t wait until something happens. It might be a difficult and embarrassing conversation but it’s crucial that you address this issue

Discuss sexting as part of a wider conversation about relationships. Let them know that you understand they want to explore their sexual identity but make it clear they shouldn’t be pressured into doing anything they don’t want to do

Remind your son or daughter why it’s important to ‘think before they post’ – once an image or piece of information is out there on mobiles or the internet, it’s hard to get it back. Ask them how they’d feel if their friends, you, a teacher, a future employer or a complete stranger saw these images?

Consider whether your child has a pay-as-you-go or a pay monthly mobile (where an itemised bill is sent to the contract owner – normally the parents) and what their text limit is. Research shows that teens who pay their own bills and don’t have a monthly text limit are more likely to exchange sexts

Encourage them not to pass on these kind of images if they receive them, even if they’re being encouraged to by their peers. Sharing the images could be construed as bullying, which is never acceptable, and they could even be breaking the law

Explain that it’s illegal to take, hold or share indecent images of anyone under the age of 18 under the Sexual Offences Act 2003

If you’re concerned that sexting is taking place at your child’s school, speak to their teacher. They might be able to take action as part of sex education classes or in line with the school’s anti-bullying policy

If you’re concerned that someone has sent your child indecent pictures or videos or that a stranger has made inappropriate contact online, report it to your internet or mobile provider and to the relevant authorities – that’s the Internet Watch Foundation and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre in the UK

There are a number of useful articles on this website, providing advice on everything from Bluetooth, chat & IM and social networking to cyberbullying, online grooming and managing reputation

If your child is concerned or upset about something to do with their sexuality or a relationship, you could suggest they speak in confidence to Childline in the UK

Exposed video 

Where can I go for more information and support?