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She's skipped school, and in her bedroom, a 13 year-old girl is trying out different naked and semi-naked poses in front of the mirror. She wants to send a sexy image to her boyfriend but can’t decide which pose to send; whether to send through the Snapchat app -which means that the photo would dissolve in a few seconds -or in a downloadable form, or whether to send a video.
Back at school, a boy reaches into his pocket to retrieve his phone, which has alerted him that he has received a new text message. He clicks on an icon on the screen and the sudden brightness from an image bursts onto his face. He emits a shock of laughter and after a moment holds the phone out for his mates, who circle the device. Just seconds after the image was first clicked on, it dissolves into nothing.
Personalised pornography--sharing provocative near-nude images--has become a huge part of the teenage social and dating scene. A 2010 study revealed that 59 percent of Australian teenagers had sent sexually suggestive messages or emails. An American survey in the same year discovered that nearly one in six teens between the ages of 12 and 17 who owned mobile phones had received nude or near-nude pictures via text message from a person they knew.
Incidents of ‘sexting’ - sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones - has skyrocketed due to various new devices and smartphone applications, coupled with the thriving ideology amongst teens that viewing and sending pornographic images is common and acceptable behaviour.
As a result, home-grown underage pornography regularly does the rounds of middle schools and high schools around the world and the majority of teenagers have sent, received, viewed related images.
And while these such sexualised photos and videos are usually exchanged with the intention of being viewed by a single recipient, they are in fact frequently shared with other individuals, and it doesn't stop there.
These intensely private images can sometimes set out on a long journey, visiting various viewing platforms and public arenas along the way. This includes one or both parties showing the image to friends, posting it on a Facebook private message to acquaintances, sending an email to multiple audiences, and even uploading it to a website used by internet paedophiles and porn users. Such websites are full of leaked sexts of girls and boys (but mostly young girls visibly still in their teen years) some of which can even be rated by viewers according to 'entertainment' value.
The photomessaging app Snapchat, with a majority demographic of 13 to 23 year-olds, has been blamed for creating an increase in demand for sexualised images between teens. The app allows users to take a ‘snap’ and send it as a view-once, dissolvable image within a selected timeframe of no more than ten seconds. The appeal is that users can be more spontaneous and candid and because they believe that their image will remain private, hidden and temporary, the more risk-averse teen is more likely to consider sexting. However, it is possible to screenshot a Snapchat image, and this may then be uploaded to public websites or other viewing platforms, making photos somewhat less than temporary.
For 18 year-old ‘Melissa’, live video chatting provided the opportunity for further rights violations. At 15, she became involved in sexually explicit texting with someone she trusted and considered a friend. Soon however, he threatened to reveal the sexts if she didn’t provide him with more 'entertainment'.
Explicit video chatting followed and “…some weeks later, I heard from one of his mates. Apparently my ‘friend’ had told him all about the deal he and I had going and his friend wanted to get in on the action. It then turned out that I had two boys to keep occupied.”
Lawmakers are reluctant to charge teens who consensually share nude photographs; however, if cases involve deception, schoolyard trading of illicit images and blackmail, perpetrators can be charged under child exploitation laws.
Commentators say that the problem is a tricky one these days because of the ease of access and constant availability of pornography and sexual images affecting the behaviour and expectations of teens.
Significantly, the roles of porn star, groomer, producer and distributor –usually separate in the adult pornography industry –regularly overlap in this demographic so that lines are blurred. Ironically, underage teens can be both victims of child sexual abuse and perpetrators.
Teacher and post-graduate ministerial student Cameron Hooper says, “Chaplains and teachers are hearing some of the stories out there in schools, so you can be sure there’s much more going on…. We haven’t always found the right way to talk about sex with teenagers, but sexting hides sex even more and it becomes a big monster in the cupboard.”
He explains that this issue is not a simple narrative of the bad boy and damsel in distress: “Boys and girls are both victims of this culture because it changes their understanding of sex and relationships. You just can’t separate the physical from the mind and spirit of a person…. Society tries to separate it and says ‘get sex at all costs because it feels good’ but the Biblical view is that sexual immorality has an impact on your entire being.”
Certainly, modern devices add a complex twist to the difficult terrain of sex and parents can’t afford to be complacent about the potentially devastating ramifications. Ongoing, open, unconfrontational dialogue in a family setting will give teens a chance to air their personal experiences, form opinions and consider their boundaries outside of group conformity.
Published Signs Magazine, 2014, and
UK Focus Magazine