Almost half of teenagers in their final year at school say they have participated in sexting – an activity that increases progressively through each year of second-level education.
Sexting is defined as the sharing of sexual text, video, and photographic content (nudes) using phones, apps, social networks and other technologies. Some 45 per cent of sixth-year pupils have sent a suggestive message and 34 per cent a sext image, while the corresponding figures among first-year pupils are five per cent and four per cent.
This snapshot of sexting behaviour among secondary-school students (see below) comes from the latest annual digital trend report by Zeeko, an internet safety start-up company based in Nova UCD. Some 3,231 secondary school pupils from 30 schools were surveyed for an insight on current views and experiences of adolescents on issues ranging from sexting and cyberbullying to interaction with strangers online and favourite apps.
With 94 per cent of students accessing the internet through smartphones, technology is not an addendum to young people's lives anymore, it is how they live their lives, says Zeeko's co-founder Joe Kenny. As an organisation, it is constantly researching and discussing issues to try to give an objective insight into this rapidly changing online world, as well as to try to help parents and teachers make sense of it.
“There is nothing wrong with sexting - it’s where young people experiment with their sexuality,” he comments. As with cyberbullying, human behaviour is the same as it ever was but with different characteristics enabled by technology.
He acknowledges that there is always a challenge around sexuality for parents of teens but, “people need to approach this in a mature way” - addressing the risks of sexting rather than condemning it.
These results should not be considered alarming, says cyber-psychologist Dr Marina Everri, as they need to be seen in the context of child and adolescent development. They are perfectly in line with what happens on a biological, psychological, and social level at that age.
Adolescence is a crucial time for the definition of gender identity and sexual orientation, she points out.
“Adolescents explore sexuality, are eager to meet peers and partners and to establish romantic relationships. Texting and sharing videos and photos respond to the need to explore and experiment with sexuality.”
There would be concern if nine-and 10-year-olds were exhibiting this kind of behaviour, she says, but it is quite normal in teens.
Everri, whose background is in social and developmental psychology, joined Zeeko last September. A native of Parma in northern Italy, she had spent the previous two years as Marie Curie Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, leading a European research project on the role of digital media in adolescent development and family communication.
Sitting in the elegant surroundings of Merville House, a former Georgian country villa that is now a hub of innovation on the UCD campus, Everri explains that she adopts a “child-centred perspective” in her work. That is, she tries to observe behaviour and interpret data from the perspective of children first.
“If we adopt an adult-centred perspective, we tend to miss something, to judge, to add our own interpretation to some phenomenon that actually belongs to children and the way in which they lead their lives and culture.”
She refers to a research colleague - a sociologist, characterising smartphones as “portable communities” for adolescents - a concentration of relationships that can be carried in the pocket.
The kind of moral panic that tends to surround sexting is triggered by adults’ incapacity to talk about sexuality, says Everri, highlighting the paradox that when she talks to parents, they say schools should take care of sexual education and it is teachers who should provide the rules. But when she discusses it with teachers, they say it is not their job and that they can’t give children rules, because it is the family’s responsibility.
As a result, “nobody is taking responsibility for it”, she says. If teachers do take it on, “parents feel kind of challenged. I think we are stuck at that point and the negative outcome is that we have children and adolescents who are actually asking adults to take responsibility”. She sees adolescents saying they want to have norms and rules, that they want adults to give them some sort of limitations.
Law on sexting
The law, by its nature, is black and white - the grey area comes in its implementation. Sexting involving people under 18 is illegal. The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 can come into effect if someone under 18 creates, shares or even just receives a sexually explicit image.
As Webwise, the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre, explains to teenagers on the watchyourspace website: "Any image that shows a child engaged in sexual activity, or that focuses on the genital region of a child is sexually explicit and illegal." However, it is less clear whether provocative content (eg a topless picture) is illegal - ultimately only a court could decide.
While prosecution of teenagers sexting their peers is unlikely, the penalties include up to 14 years in prison and anybody convicted is automatically added to the sex offenders’ register.
Irish teenagers emerged as the fourth most prolific "sexters" in the EU, in research presented to a conference in Dublin in 2016. Dr Sheri Bauman, professor of counselling at the University of Arizona, referred to a survey of pupils from 300 secondary schools in Ireland that showed more than one in four said they had sent such messages.
At the time, Dr James O’Higgins Norman, director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre in DCU, blamed the high incidence on “a lack of a coherent relationships and sexualities education (RSE) programme in schools”.
Webwise advises parents that as sexting is illegal, it is something that should be dealt with. While it doesn’t necessarily lead to harm, there are plenty of cases where content shared in confidence has been misused.
It is important to make children aware of the risks of sharing online, it stresses, and it provides “talking points” for such conversations, on the parents’ section of webwise.ie.
Interacting with strangers
The Zeeko digital trend report indicates awareness among teenagers of the impact of internet communication, with 76 per cent of those surveyed saying they consider posts, photos and videos they put online as a serious, or very serious, matter. However, as Everri points out, that’s what they think, “but in terms of practices we don’t know what they actually do”.
Parents worry too about adolescents interacting with strangers online and, even worse, then meeting up with them. In these surveys, 49 per cent of secondary-school students say they have spoken to strangers online, while 16 per cent have physically met someone they first engaged with online.
Such encounters respond to adolescents’ “crucial need to expand their social network outside their families”, explains Everri. In the pre-technology era, they used to go to discos to talk to strangers. However, children and adolescents need help, she says, in developing good strategies to deal with the risks that the online world presents in meeting new people.
Talking to and meeting strangers is much more likely as secondary students get older: 32 per cent of first years have spoken to strangers online and this rises to 70 per cent in sixth year. Eight per cent of first years said they had met somebody they first knew online, while 38 per cent of sixth years had done this.
While cyberbullying topped the list of parental concerns in the Webwise 2017 parenting survey, the data here confirms that the rate is fairly stable - some 16 per cent have been bullied online while 39 per cent say they have experienced it happening to people around them.
Over the three years Zeeko has been doing these surveys, and in both primary and secondary schools, the rate of cyberbullying has been fairly constant at roughly about the 20 per cent mark. With nearly three-quarters of children and adolescents considering it a very serious issue, it seems governmental campaigns and school interventions on bullying have raised awareness, Everri says.
On the other hand, the rate hasn’t gone down. It is a case of human aggression being replicated online rather than expanded, she observes, as the incidence of face-to-face bullying is similar.
Generally, when it comes to research on mental health, there is a “huge amount of data telling us kids are not doing good”, she says, but “it’s too easy” to blame the internet.
“Like it or not our society is telling us that kids need more help, need more support - we also have the internet, which is an extra burden let’s say.”
We need to build up their coping skills for life, integrated, as it is, between online and offline worlds. Indeed, the concept of “screen time” is becoming increasingly irrelevant and difficult to estimate among adolescents, as mobile devices are incorporated in daily family routines such as eating, watching TV or doing homework.
The internet is part of everyday life and, equally, everyday life is part of the internet because what adolescents do in their everyday life goes on the internet. So while it’s true that children need to be empowered with better strategies to cope with the internet, a “backpack” of moral principles, values and skills learned offline, Everri suggests, can help them to feel more comfortable online.
While conflict with authority is part of the developmental process, adolescents still want open communication with their parents.
“Sometimes parents don’t know how to do that,” she adds. “But it is important they know that their kids want to listen to them.”
Online experiences of boys and girls
Online experiences of girls and boys diverge significantly, as reflected in Zeeko’s digital trend report for 2016.
Secondary-school girls report higher levels of both being cyberbullied (22 per cent versus 11 per cent of their male peers) and of experiencing cyberbullying happening to people around them (48 per cent versus 33 per cent). While 89 per cent of females regard it as a very serious issue, only 71 per cent of males have the same view.
In all categories of sexting behaviour, boys are more likely to have done it than girls. For instance, 24 per cent of males have sent a sexually suggestive message but only 12 per cent of girls have; for sending nude/semi-nude images of themselves, it’s 17 per cent compared to nine per cent of females. And 18 per cent of boys have sexted a non-partner, while eight per cent of females have done the same.
These trends are typical of those that are observed in studies on gender differences and peer relations in the offline world.
“Our findings provide evidence on the persistence of a patriarchal models, which still seem to permeate the lives of younger generations regardless of them being online or offline,” says Everri. “In other words, girls tend to be the target of aggression and violence, and have less power compared to boys.
“It’s kind of sad, to be honest,” she says.
Girls are more cautious about online interaction with strangers: while 56 per cent of males have spoken to people they don’t know online, 39 per cent of females have done the same. When it comes to meeting up with people they got to know online, the gap is 18 per cent versus 13 per cent.
Some of this interaction with unknown people is undoubtedly through gaming, which is much popular with boys than girls as a way of socialising online.