‘Sexting’ now customary among young people, charity warns

Oireachtas committee told children are coerced to share explicit images of themselves

There is an expectation that a young person in a relationship will take photographs of themselves and send it to their partner, the IPSCC has   told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Photograph: Getty

There is an expectation that a young person in a relationship will take photographs of themselves and send it to their partner, the IPSCC has told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Photograph: Getty

 

Sexting is now the norm rather than the exception among young people, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Caroline O’Sullivan, director of services with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (IPSCC), warned that, once children starting “sexting”, the pressure grows for them to provide more explicit images.

Young people regard sexting, defined as sending explicit messages and photographs via a mobile phone, as a safe way of exploring their sexuality, Ms O’Sullivan told the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs.

There is an expectation that, if a young person is in any kind of relationship, they will take photographs of themselves and send it to their partner, she said.

As a consequence children are left in an “extremely difficult situation because they have no control about it”, she said.

Ms O’Sullivan said in her 20 years with the ISPCC, she had never seen so many children calling the charity’s Childline service reporting issues of low self-esteem. She blamed cyberbullying for the phenomenon.

“It is like children cannot see one good characteristic about themselves and that is scary,” she said. “They feel they have no control and no capability to actually deal with the aftermath of what has occurred.”

She said sexting was leading to “sexploitation”.

Childline had come across one nine-year-old girl who had sent photographs of herself to a classmate which were then sent on to the boys in her class, she said.

Online notifications

Ms O’Sullivan also expressed concern at the amount of time young people spend online, in some cases up to five hours a day.

Childline was aware, she told the committee, of children being woken up during the night with a barrage of notifications on their phones.

This is causing children to lose sleep and that is having an impact on their mental health.

“There is constant pressure on young people to be on all the time,” Ms O’Sullivan said. “It is hugely concerning.”

In another case, two 14-year-old friends sent pictures of themselves in their underwear to a man they met online. The man threatened to make the photographs public unless they sent more images. The pair did not want to speak to anybody about it and were too frightened to tell gardaí. They contemplated suicide.

ISPCC chief executive Gráinne Long said excessive time spent online creates a sense of remoteness and a loss of empathy. “Children do not understand their actions,” she said.

The ISPCC recommended the development of a national “cyber safety” strategy for children and the establishment of a digital safety commissioner as recommended by the Law Reform Commission.

“There is an urgent need for law reform to address the gaps in cybercrime legislation, to improve practice and to afford children greater protection online,” Ms Long said.