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Criminal law insufficient to deal with sexting; health safety education framework recommended

With new mobile technologies making sexting accessible and attractive to more young people, criminologists suggest parents and adolescents should be better informed to manage the sharing, accessing and creation of sexually explicit material online.

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With new mobile technologies making sexting accessible and attractive to more young people, criminologists suggest parents and adolescents should be better informed to manage the sharing, accessing and creation of sexually explicit material online.

A new study of 1,328 South Australian high school students aged 13 and 14 found a relatively low proportion admitted to ‘sexting’ via various electronic mediums. It is unclear why these rates are low, though it may be due to the younger age of respondents compared to other studies with older sample populations, the authors say in a new journal article.

At the same time, similar studies reveal technology is commonly used for sexual expression with sexting behaviours understood to be a part of normative adolescent romantic and sexual behaviours.

“Youth adaptations of sexual and emotional development into online spaces create opportunities to engage in potentially risky sexual behaviours with possible legal consequences,” the Flinders University-led study explains.

“Access to smart phones embedded with audio and video recording capabilities, coupled with applications like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Tinder, create opportunities to record, share, and circulate images of oneself to attract or retain romantic partners, as well as promote sexual intimacy and gratification,” says Professor Karen Holt, from Michigan State University, USA.

“Without a strong level of self-censorship, individuals may inadvertently receive sexts or view sexts on others’ devices, which limits the sender’s privacy by sharing intimate messages intended for a specific recipient without the creator’s consent. This may constitute sexual violence with negative emotional and psychological consequences.”

Dissemination of sexual images or media of individuals under the age of 18 related to sexting can be treated as a criminal offense in some countries, including Australia and the US under statutes related to child sexually abusive material, says Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Criminology Andrew Goldsmith, director of the Flinders Centre for Crime Policy and Research.  

However, “rather than relying on the criminal law, there is growing evidence to support building a health safety education framework for adolescents to provide skills to navigate pornography as part of sexual education and normative development to improve their ability to critically assess media messages and develop more realistic expectations for both sex and relationship development,” Professor Goldsmith says.

“While opportunity to sext abounds, and sexting is becoming more a part of normative adolescent development, we suggest education and intervention can serve as harm reduction mechanisms which may decrease non-consensual dissemination,” the study concludes. 

This study, also involving Professor Thomas Holt from Michigan State University, Dr Jesse Cale from Griffith and Dr Russell Brewer from the University of Adelaide, tested three forms of self-reported sexting behaviours in a sample of 1328 secondary school students across a large metropolitan region in Adelaide, South Australia, to understand the relationships between opportunity, self-control, and youths’ sending and receiving sexts, as well as the dissemination or sharing of sexts without the consent of the sender.

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The article, Assessing the role of self-control and technology access on adolescent sexting and sext dissemination (2021) by Karen M Holt, Thomas J Holt, Jesse Cale, Russell Brewer and Andrew Goldsmith, was published in Computers in Human Behaviour.

This is a big issue among youth.

In 2020, for instance, researchers found a significant connection between digital and traditional forms of dating abuse: the vast majority of students who had been abused online had also been abused offline. Specifically, 81% of the students who had been the target of digital dating abuse had also been the target of traditional dating abuse.

This is also an issue in the LGBTQIA community.

In 2019, a study found that non-heterosexual students were approximately twice as likely to have shared an image with others and to believe their image had been shared with others without permission.


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