Sexting as a Social Norm: How Schools Can Address the Legal and Social Risks for Students

15 November 2018

On 29-30 October 2018, the NSW Government sponsored the NSW Anti-Bullying Conference, with guest speaker, Wendy Craig, a Canadian Researcher and Psychology Professor, speaking on the issue of "Sexting, On and Offline". Professor Craig, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald, warned that "teenagers now see sexting as a social norm and its dangers need to be addressed directly in classrooms as part of the sex education curriculum."


What is Sexting?

As mentioned in our previous article, sexting is a recent phenomenon that has developed through increased access to instant messaging services either through the use of a mobile phone or online. It involves the sharing of sexualised or explicit imagery or messages and it can occur in a consensual, safe relationship. However, the risk of images being subsequently shared without the consent of the original party or parties is significant, as individuals or law enforcement agencies have limited capacity to trace and destroy all records of the image. The deliberate sharing of, or threats to share, images is often known as “revenge porn” or "image based abuse", and can cause a great deal of humiliation and anxiety to people involved.

A second and equally serious issue emerges when underage people, like school students, engage in sexting. Although they are also susceptible to the above harms, there is the additional risk that the consensual sharing of sexualised images can lead to both parties (depending on the age of the offenders) being charged with child pornography offences. Depending on state and territory criminal laws, this can lead to an underage person being placed on a Child Sex Offender Register. The serious consequences of being registered as an offender (and possibly named online) can impact a student for the rest of their life, and many jurisdictions are preparing to make changes to their laws to avoid unnecessarily charging minors with child sex offences.


What do Students Think of Sexting?

Professor Craig, through her work with PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence) in Canada has studied student responses to sexting. In her interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, she has stated that her research shows that nearly 40 per cent of children aged 13 years and above say they are actually engaging in sexting. Professor Craig has also said "about 42 per cent of young people also say they are showing the explicit messages or images to other people or posting them publicly, adding a high degree of risk to what is becoming a social norm."

A national study from the University of Sydney in Australia also seems to indicate that teenagers believe the practice is normal, with very little risk attached. Statistics from the study show that it is mainly consensual sexting with one partner (or not at all) (61 per cent of 13-18 year olds who have sexted did so with one person or fewer in the past 12 months) indicating that sexting, when it occurs, mostly occurs in a monogamous arrangement. Some other key findings of the study include:

  • 47 per cent of those surveyed have sent or received a sext
  • 40 per cent of 13-15 year olds have sent a sexual image
  • 50 per cent of 16-18 year olds have sent a sexual video
  • males overall were likely to send to more sexting partners than females
  • males aged 13-15 were most likely to have sent images and videos to more than five people.

Professor Craig has said that the biggest issue is that while 93 per cent of students in Canada believe other young people sext, making it a social norm in Canadian society, it is generally ranked far behind cyberbullying and online safety as an area of concern among parents, schools and teachers.


What is the Role of Police?

The final report of the Youth Sexual Violence and Abuse Steering Committee, tabled in Queensland Parliament in August 2018, has declared teen sexting should not always be labelled as child pornography, reflecting the sentiment that sexting is considered a social norm. Report author and retired Supreme Court Judge Stanley Jones has recommended that police need to reconsider charging teenagers under 16 for sexting when they are in a consensual relationship.

The Queensland Police Service (QPS) has told ABC News that it subsequently adopted the changes suggested by the report, in particular, focusing on an alternative approach where there is an emphasis on prevention and education in circumstances involving young people of similar age sexting or engaging in consenting sexual experimentation.


What is the Role of Schools?

Current research and recommendations seem to suggest that sexting is an education issue, and should be a topic taught in schools, and encouraged and discussed by parents at home. Professor Craig has stated that it is particularly important for gender diverse students, stating that "developmental psychologists are starting to [say] that maybe sexting is now a normal expression of sexuality, that it’s a way we can express ourselves through technology and that it’s intended to be a private way of exploring relationships...We know that those who are struggling to define who they are in terms of their sexual identity ... it’s an easier mechanism for them, for example, LGBTIQ youth are more likely to engage in [sexting]."

But while schools should acknowledge that sexting can be a social norm, especially among their older students, schools also need to address the legal and social risks associated with sexting, especially with consent. The Office of the eSafety Commissioner suggests practical ways that schools can get involved in educating and helping their students manage their online images and those of others. These methods include:

  • referring students to confidential support services
  • implementing esafety programs across all years in the school that have clear links to respectful relationships education
  • acknowledging the links between sexting and online or cyberbullying
  • providing practical solutions for students who share too much online, like those contained in the guide from the ESafety Commissioner
  • creating education programs for students to support classroom activities and discussion
  • helping students understand privacy and child pornography laws.

Monitoring and managing student use and misuse of the internet and mobile phones is an enormous challenge for schools. Incidents that occur outside school hours can have consequences for the mental well-being and safety of students while at school. If schools are to adequately address the needs of students, they must accept that students may engage in sexting behaviour which can have emotional, psychological and legal consequences. As such, the best tactic for schools is the education of their students about the responsible use of technology and having clear student-friendly policies in place to deal with incidents of bullying.

Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.