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What to Know About Youth Sexting During COVID-19

Photo by Brett Sayles

By Tabatha Birtch & Janelle Resmer

What better time is there to discuss the risks of sexting than when face-to-face communication is so widely discouraged? During this current pandemic the internet and technology have become a large part of day to day life. Social isolating creates a need to connect through other means, and even education has strived to continue through online resources. This increased need for screen time comes with increased risks, and at the end of April CBC News found that reports of child exploitation were up 40%. Police are attributing this to online predators taking advantage of the increased access to kids online. It is important to acknowledge the added risks that the COVID-19 pandemic creates for youth sexting, though equally important is noting that youth sexting expands beyond the currant circumstances and safety should always be considered.

Society has become enthralled by the world of technology. Many organizations and businesses rely on technology to further their public reach and ability to provide service. Then there are the social benefits, the ability to stay connected from anywhere using any number of social media platforms. Sexting is becoming a more widely accepted activity across these platforms and the emerging participants are becoming younger and younger.

Sexting refers to the sharing of sexual content through the use of technology and the internet. Phones, computers and tablets can all be used to sext and it may involve the use of sexual language, nude or semi-nude photos, videos, and live interaction through chats and webcams. There are a variety of reasons youth will engage in sexting and it is important that the conversation about sexting take place to ensure safety for participants.

So why do youth sext? From the approximate ages of 10-25 the human brain is going through stages of development that have been linked to risk taking behaviours and emotional outburst. This natural increase in risk taking behaviour coupled with a rise in sexual curiosity and the increased availability of technology in today’s world, results in sexting. Youth tend to be less guarded behind their devices than in person, giving them more freedom to express themselves and explore their sexuality in a way that is seen acceptable by their peers.

However this stage of brain development also results in less consideration for consequences and the internal alarm system is easily over ridden by impulsive behaviour. Sexting can be dangerous in these impulsive moments since today’s technology allows for things like a picture to be taken and sent within seconds. As well, sexting is seen as having low consequence by youth due in part to the belief that their images won’t have a negative impact on them. This belief and the growing peer acceptance of sexting certainly makes the risk seem low, however peer acceptance can easily translate into peer pressure. The majority of pressure comes from someone hoping to receive a sext, but there is also social pressure if you believe your friends are all doing it. Youth are trying to connect with the world around them and if they feel sending sexually explicit content will get them a boyfriend or girlfriend they are more likely to do so. Despite the beliefs that there are minimal risks in sexting there are in fact many. Knowing about the risks could sway an individual’s decision to sext so it is vitally important that an education of the consequences be given.

So what are some of the risks of sexting? There can be serious psychological and emotional harm involved and in some cases physical safety can be jeopardised. Sexting can have a detrimental effect on teen relationships and one of the most obvious and dangerous risks involved in sexting is the transfer of power and control. First, simply having the image on an independently used computer or phone does not necessarily ensure safety and privacy. Apps that promise photos/ videos will disappear can be overridden by someone taking a screenshot. Once the message, image, or video is sent the recipient must now be trusted to protect the privacy on the sender’s behalf. Some may not see this as an issue if they are in a consensual and trusting relationship however there are still risks involved given the permanency of a sext. If the relationship were to end would you still want the individual to have that sexual content in connection to you? And what if that respect and trust is not there? Sexts can be used for blackmail, sex bullying, and shaming. The ease in which a sext can be shared means that it can quickly be spread around an entire school or community without the individual’s consent.

Now the afore mentioned risks can all occur from engaging in sexting with someone you know or even know well. The risk factor can significantly increase when sexting with someone you barely know. Technology can give you access to vast online communities that help you connect with people with shared interests and this can include gaming communities as well as social media platforms. However this also means youth are connecting with people they wouldn’t typically interact with due to age differences or the use of fake online profiles looking to exploit kids. There are different legal ramifications for youth when sexting with someone they met online or someone who is much older. Sexual predators will use popular social media apps to connect with kids and form relationships through deceit and manipulation.

Legally the sharing of sexual photos/videos of anyone under the age of 18 including photos/videos of yourself is considered child pornography and is illegal. The possession or distribution of such content is also illegal. A young person can be charged and/or registered as a sex offender if they transmit, receive, create any sexualized image or video of a person under the age of 18. Legal ramification will take into consideration if the sexts were sent voluntarily between consenting individuals of a similar age, but sexual harassment through sexting is illegal at any age.

What can be done to keep kids and teens safe in regards to sexting? It is important to be calm and open about the conversation. Fear of repercussions will result in secrecy, so it is vital that youth feel supported and able to come to adults with questions and concerns. Be sure they know that it is okay to report “strange” behaviour online and be open with them about who they are talking to online and what sites they are using. Take time to educate individuals on the legal ramifications and risks involved in sexting. Ask what they are being taught in school and give them space to ask any further questions that they want clarification or more information about. Avoid judgement and labeling sexting with degrading terms. Set boundaries for use of technology and monitor any changes in behaviour or personality if there appears to be a correlation with the technology. If kids have access to technology safety needs to be considered no matter how young.

Tabatha Birtch & Janelle Resmer are Child Witness Counselors at Women’s House Serving Bruce Grey


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