Sex education needs to evolve to keep pace with trends like sexting, experts say
Many teenagers can struggle to handle the consequences of sexting. (File photo) (Flickr: leppre)
Could you imagine sending a sexually explicit photo of yourself to a stranger? Maybe your children can.
Research published this year suggests one in seven teenagers have sent explicit texts and one in four have received them.
It prompted the Australian Medical Association to overhaul its youth outreach program, Dr YES (Youth Education Session), to include more up-to-date information about sexting and health.
The program involves medical students visiting high schools for frank discussions with young people about health issues.
It coordinator, Julian Ming, told Jessica Strutt on ABC Radio Perth that the texting of explicit images, or sexting, had emerged as a huge social dilemma for many young people.
Julian Ming is coordinating the Australian Medical Association’s youth outreach program. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
“We were raised in a technological world where an iPhone or a laptop is your main form of communication with your friends,” he said.
“So really, sexting is kind of the obvious extension of that digital world that young people live in — it’s just another means of communicating with other people.”
Digital intimacy on the rise
Jessica Ringrose, a professor of sociology in gender and education at University College London, recently spoke at a conference at Curtin University and said the problems young people encountered with sexting were matters of consent.
“Why would it be OK for you to just send someone your [nude] picture unsolicited?
“Why would it be OK to share something someone’s just given to you and spread or transmit it to a whole bunch of other people?
“What has to change is the social norms around images being seen as a form of currency or value that can be traded against their consent.”
Jessica Ringrose says the issue for many young people engaged in sexting is one of consent. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Professor Ringrose said people needed to think carefully about who they shared images with and where they might end up.
“It can also make you very vulnerable: what if that pic could be used to blackmail you or sexploit you?”
Sexting and self-esteem
Co-founder of the Dr Yes program Dr Rosanna Capolingua said the mistreatment of explicit images could jeopardise somebody’s wellbeing.
“To have your image shared when you first have believed that it was perhaps in a consensual understanding, you could feel violated, you could feel ashamed, you could feel embarrassed, and that’s when your self-esteem starts to get undermined,” she said.
“It has long-term implications for their employment ability and their reputation over time because often images get left around and get used later.”
Mr Ming said parents needed to learn to be comfortable having clear and open conversations about sexual behaviour with their teenage children.
“It’s not necessarily specifically about talking about sexting,” he said.
“It’s about fostering that safe, welcoming, open environment and being comfortable talking about sex and sexuality with your family.”
Research has recommended that sexting be discussed as part of school sex education lessons. (ABC South East SA: Kate Hill)
But Dr Capolingua said it could be a tough topic for parents to approach.
“You’ve got to talk to your kids about what’s happening,” she said.
“Sometimes parents really have no idea — they’re completely at a loss to understand why their young person is now locked in their room at night sullen, withdrawing from sport, academically slipping away, maybe even cutting with self harm.”
ABC Radio Perth listeners shared concern about the fallout of sexting.
Carolyn: “What is a huge worry is the impact of revenge porn when the relationship or friendship ends badly and the partner has multiple compromising images on their phone at their disposal.”
Linda: “The advice I give my kids is that texting a photo of yourself is the same as putting it on the front page of The West Australian. Anyone can see it, you lose all control of it and it will never go away.”
Checking phones not the solution
Professor Ringrose said it would not be wise for parents to actively monitor their children’s phone and social media activity.
“We need them to have digital literacy, we need them to have more information,” she said.
“You can’t have a 24-hour surveillance-checking culture; that’s just a culture of mistrust.”
Mr Ming agreed that it was a tactic that could foster resentment.
“It’s against our rights as young people to have our privacy violated in that way.”
Rosanna Capolingua runs the Dr YES program under the Australian Medical Association. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Sex education in schools needed to be updated to include information about sexting, he said.
“Sex education tends not to be as comprehensive and as dealing with the issues as it should be.
“It seems to be really behind the times in terms of technology; it doesn’t really necessarily cover the basics of sexting.”
Professor Ringrose said sex education worked best when it was constantly reinforced.
“You can’t just have one assembly, [say] ‘we covered sexting’, and that’s it,” she said.
“Young people need to support each other to not tolerate bad sexual behaviour in their own friendship group, just as we encourage them to look out for each other if they see a friend who’s looking as though they’re suffering from mental health problems.”