‘Everyone seems to want teachers to solve the problem of “sexting”. Dare I suggest there is another way…?’
Easter is a strange holiday, in my experience. You’re just "getting into it", relaxing into a pleasingly mellow springtime groove, then suddenly it’s time to go back for the summer term and everyone’s a bit like: "Oh, oh right."
I spent the last few days of the Easter break practising what I preach, by which I mean I was looking after my own mental health (without which I cannot help others with theirs). I escaped to my parents’ house in the country and spent 65 per cent of my time flat on my back, drinking hot squash through a curly straw, looking up at the trees, listening to Bowie on my iPod while stroking the dog’s belly. The rest of the time I wasted.
All of the above is my way of explaining why my column is slightly late this week. Sorry about that. (I am totally refreshed in the head: I’m just a bit "Oh, oh right").
Anyway, enough of that. I want to talk about sexting. The papers have been obsessed with it, of late, to the extent that any vaguely relevant news story (like the Labour party’s recent announcement that they are joining the call for mandatory PSHE) was given a sexting edge. "TEACHERS TO TACKLE SEXTING EPIDEMIC IN CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS 10" was a standard sort of headline.
The problem is, as has become depressingly typical, teachers have been expected to resolve a technology-created dilemma that parents and society more generally find horrifying and fascinating in equal measure, without any sort of guidance.
Local authorities and independent PSHE-providing organisations are wont to attempt to tackle the topic with a portentous assembly/piece of TIE centring around a "silly" girl who sent a naked selfie and the "silly" boy who showed his mates, both of whom are now in prison/unable to get a job/humiliated utterly in their local community/unwilling yet famous porn stars (delete as applicable).
The problem with this approach is that it falls neatly into what I call the "truth gap". Most young people know someone who had sex and didn’t immediately get pregnant/die of an STI, or who took drugs and wasn’t arrested, or who sent a "sexy" selfie and managed to keep it quiet (because they followed the "face or body" rule).
Quoting worst-case scenarios is therefore likely to prompt a "probably won’t happen to me and therefore not relevant" response. Plus, in their minds, "everyone’s doing it" and, unless the powers that be want the economy to collapse in a decade’s time, they can’t simply refuse to give everyone who’s ever sexted a job. It’s not economically viable. A different tack is needed.
I recently went to (probably) the most interesting conference ever, organised by Cheltenham College and featuring fascinating presentations by Gloucestershire County Council and journalist Martin Daubney. Among the speakers was psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas, who said so many wise things that I was having difficulty live-tweeting them quickly enough.
On the topic of sexting, Melville-Thomas observed that young people send sexual content to one another in a bid to get attention and, therefore, the question we should be asking is how can we provide them with the attention they want in other areas of their life? She asked us all to make a pledge to replace the phrase "attention seeking" with "attention needing" from that moment hence. I’ll invite you to do the same, reader.
So sexting is, in reality, a self-esteem issue. That’s the first thing to note. In the short term, what young people need is time to reflect on the potential consequences of their actions. By which I don’t mean, "I may get arrested for this and get a criminal record and never be able to get a job", but the emotional consequences.
What the internet does is rob children and teenagers of five minutes to think things through. It is immediate, constant, demanding and urgent. In the words of a teacher well past the traditional age of retirement I chatted to a few years ago: "In my day, if you wanted to send someone a saucy snap you had to take the film roll to be developed somewhere. It took about a week, by which time you’d thought the better of it."
So how do we give today’s young people a metaphorical film roll and the attendant thinking space? The tack we have taken at my organisation, Self-Esteem Team, is to say: "If you really want to send a sexy text, we can’t stop you. But here are five questions you should ask yourself first."
The questions, outlined in our (*plug alert*) book The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs & WTFs?!! include considerations such as "why am I being asked to do this?", "what would happen if I said no?", "how would I feel if other people saw this?" and, perhaps most crucially, "have I considered that, for all their promises of ‘erasing’ images after however many seconds, ultimately, Snapchat can be screenshot?" (shock of all horrors).
If they still want to sext after considering the above, that’s their choice. But, we figure, they probably won’t.
So, there you have it: a modern solution to a very modern problem.
Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE