Students Sending Nudes: One School’s Response to Cyber Wellbeing
As mentioned in our previous article, according to the ESafety Commissioner, sexting refers to making sexually suggestive images or messages and sharing these using mobile phones or by posting them on the internet or social media. According to a recent ESafety Commissioner report on Young People and Sexting, young people perceive that sending and sharing nude or nearly nude images or videos is common. Nearly one in three young people aged 14-17 years in Australia had some experience with sexting in the 12 months to June 2017. This included sending, being asked and asking to send, sharing or showing nude or nearly nude images or videos.
Schools cannot and should not bury their heads in the sand. They need to be creative in highlighting the benefits of technology while ensuring that students maintain positive social relationships built on respectful communication.
The Risks of Sexting
With the practice of sexting becoming more common among school students, it seems that the criminal law has not kept pace with the attitudes of modern teenagers.
Under current legislation, children who send sexually explicit or nude images and those who receive the images may find themselves falling foul of various state, territory and Commonwealth child abuse laws. Sexting may breach laws that prohibit the creation, distribution or possession of child abuse material regardless of whether all parties involved consent to the images being taken and shared, or whether the images are sent to other minors, even minors of the same age.
Students may also encounter social consequences. Images can easily escape their control through being shared more broadly than they had anticipated. This can have a long-term impact on their digital reputation. Images can also potentially be used for cyberbullying or cyberstalking, or they may attract unwanted attention from others.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended in Volume 10 that, rather than criminalising sexting behaviours, a better approach to children with harmful sexual behaviours like inappropriate sexting was to treat the issue through a public health model. This involves protective behaviours education for students, as well as training for staff about responses to potentially harmful sexual behaviours, rather than involving police or a criminal conviction.
Loreto College’s Response to Image Based Abuse
Loreto College in Ballarat (an all girls school) has done just that, being the first school in Australia to put their students through a new course about the dangers of image-based bullying. The trial of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation’s new ‘Selfie’ program saw a facilitator from the Foundation visit the school and work with each Year 8 class on the key topic of ‘sexting’ over the course of two days. This program is a response to statistics indicating a “staggering increase” in sexting complaints involving teenage girls. The complaints involve girls aged between 13 and 17 being pressured to send explicit photos of themselves, prompting calls for victims to come forward.
The approach used by the facilitator was to pose sexting case studies to the students and to have them assume the roles of different people involved; the boy, the victim, the friend and the parent. At the end of the program, the students made a pledge to protect themselves online. The Foundation is visiting the school again next month to follow up about how the students have progressed since the first meeting. Themes of ‘respect’, ‘seeking help’ and ‘having the courage to say “No”,’ are highlighted.
Year 8 students also complete a unit on protecting yourself online as part of the Health curriculum. Additionally, in Year 9, the year level co-ordinators are introducing students to a program they have developed called ‘Digital Detox’, where students are challenged to restrict phone and social media usage. The school is also proactively tackling the issue of sexting through peer tutoring, in which older students at the school prepare a presentation about sexting and associated legal issues. The students run these forums for younger students in small groups, with positive results.
Alannah & Madeline Foundation chief Lesley Podesta said, “Nearly 80 per cent of people who have been victim of image based abuse don’t report it. It’s time to turn that around. We can’t stamp it out but we want people to be able to speak up…If it happens, we want people to feel supported and to be able to get on with their life and dignity. Let’s respect girls, not treat them badly when someone has done the wrong thing by them.”
What Schools Should be Doing Now
Schools can take simple steps to manage the risks that sexting presents including:
- educating students on child abuse laws and the risks associated with sexting, with a key focus on social consequences and respectful relationships
- having clear codes of conduct prohibiting sexting using school equipment and disciplinary procedures for when these codes are breached
- not collecting phones or computers which they believe to contain the nude or sexual images of students, but taking steps to remove any images especially if they have made their way on to the school’s online environment, and
- not retaining any nude or sexual images of students on files or for evidentiary purposes lest the school breach criminal laws.
The E-Safety Commissioner has further information and classroom resources for teachers.
About the Author
Lauren Osbich is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. She can be contacted here.