A recent ChildLine poll revealed that 60% of teens face ‘sexting’ pressure and over a third have sent explicit images at one point. Sexting, for those unaware, is the sharing of sexually explicit images or messages. It is also, as the poll implies, rife amongst today’s youth. Many of the participants who shared their experiences in the survey were as young as 13; highlighting the prominence of the phenomenon.

The poll also found that 15% of young sexters sent explicit images to complete strangers; a figure made all the more disturbing considering the staggering amount of ‘private’ images that find their way into the hands of paedophiles. It is astonishing how many seemingly savvy teenagers, well-versed in the pitfalls of the digital age, can be so naïve and trusting. If anything, this further highlights the all-encompassing nature of the beast; it can affect any teenager.

There are those who will cry of societal breakdown, of greater moral failing trickling down to our youth, but it just isn’t that straight-forwards. Yes, the hyper-sexualized culture we live in, or endure, can warp even an adult’s understanding of sexuality. A toxic mix of unrealistic beauty standards, sexual myths and misogynistic attitudes does little to benefit young men and women. They say sex sells, but the over-sexualised media age we live in seems to be selling the next generation nothing but a distorted view of sexual relationships.

So how can parents and educators combat the unsavoury effects of irresponsible media juggernauts?
The key is to take the small steps needed to redress the balance. Vulnerable teenagers need to be empowered and taught to combat peer pressure. Regardless of what seems ‘normal’ amongst their peer groups, they must understand that they cannot be forced into anything by anyone. Arming youngsters with self-assuredness will go a long way in preventing cases of coercion. It would also reinforce the necessity of consent; respecting people’s boundaries is a concept which cannot be overstressed.

An aggressive, often male, sense of entitlement must also be tackled. Some teenage boys feel entitled to sexually stimulating photos from their girlfriends. Such attitudes are spawned by an immature and boorish environment within friendship circles; one which is often complicit in the sharing of ‘nudes’. Young girls can be led to believe that they are being difficult or even frigid if they do not comply with these standards. In a sense, they are bullied into sexting. If that isn’t textbook sexual harassment, I don’t know what is.
As ever, it is vital to distinguish between those ‘sexters’, male or female, who are co-erced into the act, and those who genuinely wish to share intimate images with others. Yet, as the ages of those participating in the phenomenon spiral downwards, it is only expected that they are considered victims. A 13 year old cannot be expected to fully realize the extent to which their school life may be affected by a simple image or text, or even the ramifications on their mental well-being. Betrayal may be the last thing on their mind, but it is very often the cruel reality.

Cyber bullying, and its long-lasting effects cannot be underestimated. Cases in which teenagers have been driven to suicide by ‘leaked’ sexts are as well documented as they are tragic. Within the intense microcosm of the school, it easy to see why one exposed sext can destroy a victim’s life. Cases where teenagers blackmail others into sending them increasingly explicit photos are also widespread. Youngsters are effectively being held ransom and threatened with social ruin and the horrifying prospect of sexts forwarded to parents.

While sharing intimate photos is at best, a callous and unforgivable act, it is important to remember that any teenaged can be capable of such insensitivity. We don’t exactly make out best decisions in our hormonally charged teen years. It’s fair to say, where well-intentioned trust exists, there will always be those who abuse that privilege.

Current sex education programs do little to empower teenagers with the tools necessary to navigate relationships, nor do they address these pressing matters. We can no longer dismiss sexting as a fad or craze. It is a legitimate issue that requires a frank debate. Likewise, parents need to confront it, and for that, they must work to educate themselves first. There is no point of having ‘the talk’ if you exclude the modern realities a child will undoubtedly face. Peter Wanless, head of the NSPCC has stressed that sexting has now become a ‘feature’ of adolescent relationships. Perhaps it is time it became a feature of our PSHE classes.

BY: Momtaza Warsame

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