Sexting – the sharing of explicit messages and nude images – is endemic among teenagers, says MSP Gillian Martin. The SNP representative for Aberdeenshire East wants better protection for young people after an 11-year-old girl in her constituency sent a semi-nude photograph of herself via Snapchat to an older boy who, within 30 minutes, had shared it with “multitudes of people in the area”.
Here, we set out the problem of sexting and look at how schools are dealing with it.
What is sexting?
The sharing of sexually explicit messages, photographs or images, primarily between mobile phones. It may also include the use of a computer or other digital device. According to Martin, the practice is thought to be “no big deal” among many young people.
How widespread is it?
Research published in 2016 by Fife Council educational psychologists, and reported in Tes Scotland (“Teach 10-year-olds about ‘devastating’ sexting effects”, 14 October 2016), was then thought to be the most extensive examination of sexting by any Scottish local authority. More than 800 S1 and S3 pupils were asked to complete online surveys, the results of which showed that 38 per cent of S3s had received inappropriate images – defined as naked or nearly naked shots – while a sizeable minority of S1s had, too (14 per cent).
What can schools do?
There’s a general appreciation that this is not an issue that should be tackled by schools alone. In a Scottish Parliament debate on “cyber resilience” last week, SNP MSP Tom Arthur said that parents should teach their children about responsible use of the internet in the same way that they tell them how to safely cross the road. However, the Fife educational psychologists who researched the issue in 2016 stressed that schools must not ignore sexting, given the “absolutely devastating” consequences it can have for pupils. Principal educational psychologist Vivienne Sutherland said that schools should inform pupils that behaviour they might consider normal could in fact be illegal; they should also warn of the potentially “catastrophic” repercussions of sharing inappropriate pictures, and that “once [an image] is online, you can’t take it down”.
Green Party MSP Ross Greer has been pushing for personal and social education to be overhauled; he sees a place for the teaching of online safety – including the risks of sexting – in these lessons. However, he stresses that young people should be “co-designers of the curriculum”, arguing that this would lead to greater buy-in from pupils and “resolve the issue of teachers being expected to address issues that are generationally alien to them”.
What is the legal position?
By soliciting naked photographs or sending unsolicited images of themselves, pupils are breaking the law, given that it is an offence to possess, send, make, take, distribute or show indecent photographs of children.
Children’s charities have voiced concern that children are being criminalised. In one incident, a 14-year-old boy in England stood to have his name held on a police database for 10 years for making and distributing an indecent image. He had sent a naked selfie via Snapchat to a girl of the same age in his class who then shared it with others.
What do the statistics show?
The number of “other sexual crimes” that have been recorded by police in Scotland increased by 50 per cent between 2013-14 and 2016-17, to become the largest category of sexual crime, ahead of “sexual assault” and “rape and attempted rape”.
The growth in “other sexual crimes” has been driven by increases in crimes of “communicating indecently”, which almost doubled over the period (from 605 to 1,166) and “cause to view sexual activity or images”, which more than quadrupled (from 229 to 1,030). These crimes now account for 20 per cent of all sexual offences. When such incidents take place online, the victims are usually female and have a median age of 14; the perpetrators are usually male with a median age of 18.
What action is being taken?
The Scottish government has set up an expert group, headed up by former Crown Office chief executive Catherine Dyer, on the prevention of sexual offending involving children and young people. The group is expected to report in spring 2019.
Is there any information available to help parents and schools to raise awareness?
Two films that can be used to start conversations with pupils about sexting are available via the Young Scot website (youngscot.net) – one called Cyber Attraction, the other, Overexposure. The site also has information about safe sexting and how to remove unwanted online images.