What is sexting?
Sexting is making sexually suggestive images and sharing these images using mobile phones or by posting them on the internet and social media. The images might be photographs of yourself or someone else naked or partially naked.
Young people might call it sexting, and they might also use terms like sending a ‘nude’, ‘sexy selfie’ or ‘rude’ picture.
What teenagers wish their parents knew about sexting
You might think that sexting is something risky, dangerous and illegal. Although there are risks, and teenagers can be pressured into sexting, it isn’t always as simple as this.
For teenagers, sexting is often fun and consensual. They might also see sexting as part of building relationships and self-confidence, and exploring sexuality, bodies and identities.
Young people do worry about their images being shared with other people, including friends and family members. Many try to reduce this risk by making images only for people they trust, and with whom they have or hope to have a romantic or intimate relationship. But some teenagers do send sexual images to people they’ve never met.
Talking with teenagers about sexting: why it’s important
Young people want to be able to talk openly and honestly with their parents about sexting. And talking with your child is the best way to help your child learn about:
- what sexting is and what to do if they see or get a nude or a sexy selfie
- what the risks of sexting are
- whether sexting can be part of a respectful relationship.
How to start a conversation about sexting
You might feel embarrassed talking with your child about sexting, but it can be part of talking about sexuality.
Here are some questions that can get a conversation going:
- Do you know people at school who’ve sent or received a nude or a sexy selfie?
- Do they do it for fun or to flirt?
- Was it their idea to send the photo, or did someone persuade them to?
- What do you know about people sharing sexual images of someone to get revenge?
- Do you have any questions about things you’ve heard?
If your child has questions about sexting, try to answer them as honestly and openly as you can. If you have concerns about the risks of sexting, you could explain your concerns and why you’d prefer your child didn’t send sexts.
Once you’ve started talking about sexting with your child, you might find talking gets easier the more you do it.
Sexting risks: how to explain them to teenagers
Your child needs to know that sexting or sending nudes has risks, like the risk of images being shared without consent. For example, you might say, ‘Once you send a photo to someone, you lose control of it. It could be shared with other people and put on social media. People you don’t know could see it’.
You could also encourage your child to think about what might happen if they break up or fall out with someone who has sexual images of them. For example, that person might share the sexual images to get revenge on your child.
You could also explain that once images are on the internet they can be very difficult to remove.
It’s also important to help your child understand the legal consequences of sexting.
Respectful relationships: a good way to protect teenagers from sexting risks
The best way to protect your child from the risks of sexting is to talk about respectful relationships and trust.
You can explain to your child that sexting is a sexual activity. All sexual acts – including sexting – need consent from a partner. Breaching consent by sharing a sext isn’t respectful or OK. It’s also not OK to share other people’s sexts or to send a nude to someone who hasn’t asked for one. In fact, it's considered abusive and illegal in Australia.
It’s important for your child to know that they have a right to say ‘no’. For example, ‘It’s never OK for someone to pressure you into doing anything sexual, including sending sexual photos of yourself’.
It’s also a good idea for your child to practise saying no. For example, your child could use humour by saying ‘Yes, why not?’ and then send a picture of an animal or a stick person. Or your child could just say, ‘No, I don’t send nudes’.
Why sexting can be a serious issue for teenagers
If a sexual photo or video of your child is shared online, it could be posted to social media sites, or forwarded to friends and people your child doesn’t even know. These images can become part of your child’s digital footprint and stay in the public domain forever.
If people have seen sexual photos of your child, your child might feel guilty, ashamed and uncomfortable about doing ordinary things like going to school or playing sports. The situation can be humiliating, and your child might feel that their reputation has been damaged. It can also harm friendships and social networks.
Sexting can expose your child to bullying, harassment or abuse. For example, when people share images, they might also post nasty comments, attack your child’s reputation, call your child names, ask for more images or make other inappropriate demands.
Often girls get more of this kind of bullying, harassment and abuse than boys. This is because many cultures apply different standards to girls and boys in terms of sexuality.
If your child is being bullied, harassed or abused because of sexting, your child needs to know it isn’t their fault. Your child also needs your help and support to work through practical solutions to sexting problems. Feelings of sexual shame or regret can lead to depression or even suicidal thoughts in extreme cases. You and your child can get support by contacting eheadspace on 1800 650 890, Kids Helpline for teens on 1800 551 800, or Lifeline on 131 114.
Sexting and the law
Under Australian law, sexting involving a child under 18 years old is a criminal offence even when it’s consensual, and even when the photographer is also a child. Under the Crimes, Legislation Amendment Act (No.2) 2014, it can be seen as either child pornography or as an indecent act. Your child could face jail and be listed on the sexual offenders register.
Also, sexting is illegal in all Australian states and territories, except in Victoria and Tasmania. In these states it’s legal if both people are under 18 and there’s no more than a two-year age gap.
If your child is involved in sexting and someone reports your child to the police, your child could be charged with distribution or possession of child pornography. This could happen even if your child or someone else taking part in the sexting has consented to it.
The police decide whether to charge and prosecute someone depending on the seriousness of the situation. If the sexting involves harassment or threats, the police are more likely to press charges. For example, this might happen if someone keeps bothering your child with requests for a naked picture, or keeps sending your child naked pictures that your child doesn’t want.
Youth Law Australia has details of the laws on sexting in each Australian state and territory.