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Growing up and the internet: sexting, exploitation and other dangers

By Tim Mitchell on 25 Jul, 2018

As young people progress into their teens and on to their early twenties, everything changes: their bodies, their minds, their behaviours and attitudes, they way they perceive and react, and the types of relationships they have. Whilst we all want our young people to grow, progress and be happy, we are often wistful about the inevitable loss of innocence that accompanies that growth. And as for the young people themselves, the rate of growth of these different elements isn’t always in sync, sometimes leading to confusion.

Then, there’s the internet ...

The need to satisfy endless natural curiosity, as well as wanting to fit in with their peers, makes young people hungry for new online places and experiences. Not all of these places and experiences, however, have a good outcome, and we’d like to keep you up to speed with a few problems that they can encounter which are particularly prevalent at the moment. In this blog post, we’re focusing on problems of a personal, intimate nature rather than financial fraud or being called something derogatory on social media. All can affect both girls and boys.

Sexting

The name should say it all, but to the uninitiated: sexting means sending a photo or video of yourself either in a state of undress, or performing some kind of intimate act … or both. Sexting between consenting adults is fine under some circumstances, but for young people, it’s an absolute no-no. However, many young people frequently participate in the practice. This can happen either proactively, as a response to a request from someone they’ve got close to, or in response to pressure from someone with motives that are anything but affectionate.  

Aside from the issue of the young person not possessing sufficient maturity, sexual exploitation and child pornography laws can also come into play for people under the age of 18. Also, the old adage ‘what goes online, stays online’ was never more apt than when talking about sexting, as if the image or video falls into the wrong (malicious or simply mischievous) hands, it can end up being at best, embarrassing and at worst, traumatic - if it is posted and forwarded around the internet, or used for blackmail.

Could your child – or one you know – be sexting images or video of themselves? Could they be requesting or even demanding such images from others? However tricky, please have the conversation with them about responsibility and maturity but, above all, their own dignity and reputation. You can view a 10-minute film about the consequences of sexting, here and another which helps empower young people to take control, here. You could also tell your child about Zipit, an app from Childline which helps young people respond to unwanted chat with the power of GIFS, and decline requests for intimate images whilst still looking ‘cool’.

Blackmail

Above, we’ve mentioned blackmail as one of the possible consequences of sexting. However, sexting isn’t the only way people obtain intimate photos or videos. Young people with an affection for each other can take and store intimate photos of each other far more easily than when their parents were the same age, thanks to the cameras on their phones. If that ‘young love’ turns sour, however, it’s quite possible for one of the parties, feeling bitter and angry, to threaten the other that they will propagate the image across the class, the school or the entire internet, unless demands for renewal of the relationship – or even for money – are met. With the viral nature of the internet, it doesn’t take long for that image to be seen by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

The consequences for the subject of the image can range from acute embarrassment at having been, quite literally, exposed in such a way, to severe trauma, resulting in withdrawal, depression and, in acute cases, self-harm and even taking their own life.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Unlike the instances mentioned above, Child Sexual Exploitation (often referred to by the initials CSE) normally refers to exploitation of young people by adults, who could be either criminal gangs perpetrating blackmail, or paedophiles – working either as part of a ring, group of friends or associates or alone.

The most commonplace scenario is for a young person to be ‘groomed’ – by an older person either claiming to be of the same age as the victim, or admitting their age in order to flatter the victim that they are attractive to an older age group. This could happen on a social network, chatroom or chat function of a gaming or other site, for example. Whichever the situation, the young person often believes that they’re in a consensual relationship, as they just don’t have the experience and maturity to differentiate.

In a similar vein to the scenarios described above, the young person, having entered into some kind of dialogue with the perpetrator, will be persuaded to send intimate photos, or remove clothing and/or perform intimate acts on their web or phonecam. The content will then be used to either threaten the young person that the content will be published online or sent to family and friends unless a financial ransom is paid, or for purposes of gratification and sharing with other paedophiles.

In extreme cases, the perpetrator will persuade or trick the victim into a face-to-face meeting, which can lead to physical abuse including humiliating and degrading acts, sometimes in exchange for ‘rewards’. They can be so persuasive and manipulative that the young person doesn’t understand that they’re being abused, or be too frightened to tell anybody what’s happening. 

Watch the NSPCC video ‘The Story of Jay’ (suitable for adults and teenagers) about how this can happen. This page also features useful links to other resources on the subject.

How to safeguard young people

Experts agree that the best approach as a parent or someone else working with young people, is to work with them to explain the things they may encounter in an age-appropriate way … not making technology scary, but opening their eyes to some of the negative aspects. Encourage them to talk to you about concerns they may have, and if they find that difficult, suggest they may talk to a teacher, relative or someone else they (and you) trust.

It's also a good idea for you to suggest to young people in your care that they should keep a look out for their friends, including spotting unexplained changes in behaviour and voicing their concerns to you or another responsible adult. If you know their friends’ parents, you could suggest that they recommend this to their children too.

Reporting

If you suspect that your child or another young person is an actual or potential victim of grooming or other sexual exploitation, report it at www.ceop.police.uk

If you feel that the young person is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.