Durban - South African teenagers have joined their global counterparts in “sexting” each other but they are oblivious to the dangers and risk of being prosecuted for distributing child pornography.
This was the warning from local child protection experts following research on teenagers and social media, presented by Drs Clair Ruiz and Andrea Moore of the Oregon Health and Science University at the 21st Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions held in Durban last week.
The term sexting comes from the combination of the words sex and texting and is defined as the sending of sexually explicit messages or images via cellphone.
Ruiz and local experts have warned that for teens to possess and distribute such images is a criminal offence, both locally and abroad, and the pictures sometimes end up distributed online and on social media.
Ruiz said there were “huge” legal consequences for sexting teens.
“Teen sexts can be considered child pornography even if the images are self-produced, even if they were produced voluntarily and even if they were never intended for reproduction or commercial use or malicious use.”
She told delegates that a US man, days after his 18th birthday and after a fight with his girlfriend, had in anger e-mailed nude photographs of her that they had shared as a couple to 70 people on her contact list.
“She decided to press charges against him. He could have been charged, in theory, with 140 counts of child pornography, one for possession and one for distribution, of every image that he sent,” Ruiz said.
“This raised a lot of controversy because although this is problematic behaviour, this young man did not fit the typical profile of a child pornographer, yet that was what he was being charged with.”
He accepted a plea bargain, which included five years’ probation and registration as a sex offender.
However, Ruiz said some jurisdictions had now passed laws to deal specifically with teen sexting, separately from child pornography laws. Teenagers in Canada and Australia had also been prosecuted under child pornography laws for sexting, she said.
Joan van Niekerk, of Childline SA, said children over the age of 10 could potentially be charged under either the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act or the Films and Publications Act as amended, for sending and receiving sexts.
“I know of a young girl who reported an ex (boyfriend) for sexting a picture she took of herself to all his friends when they broke up,” she said, adding that he was charged for child pornography but the case had “diverted” back to the girl who had taken the picture of herself and sent it to her boyfriend.
Van Niekerk said children aged 11 to 18 were engaging in sexting using a range of mobile applications.
“We get frequent calls about this on the Childline counselling and crisis line, and usually this is after a distribution of a compromising photo has been posted.
“This causes enormous distress to the child concerned and the family and we find that many children involved do not anticipate the consequences,” she said. “There is an enormous need for education in life orientation on this issue.”
Van Niekerk said the danger to children’s well-being was “huge”.
“Children feel intense shame and embarrassment, do not want to interact with peers, go to school or socialise. They want the earth to swallow them up. They are often scared to confide in parents, as they anticipate severe punishment, but also feel deep shame.”
And sex offenders used sexting to groom children, she warned.
“Children are curious about sex and therefore are sometimes responsive. This is then seen as interest in an inappropriate relationship.”
Jackie Branfield, founder of Operation Bobby Bear, which assists victims of child abuse, said sexting was rife among teenagers across KwaZulu-Natal.
“We have young girls going into Mr Price and putting on underwear and taking selfies and sexting and they are 12 years old. They think they are so cool but they don’t realise once it is out there you can’t get it back. It’s out there for ever,” Branfield said.
“My latest thing on FB (Facebook) was if you want to put forward photographs of your boobs do it for a mammogram and not for Instagram (an online photo/video-sharing and social networking service).
Branfield said parents needed to monitor and censor their children’s online behaviour.
“I have spoken to schoolchildren throughout KZN who say ‘it’s cultural to take a picture of myself with my breasts showing’,” Branfield said.
“Any photograph taken of a child under 18 in a sexual or suggestive manner is against the law. Even if an adult is dressed up as a child it’s against the law.”
Studies had shown the prevalence of teens who sext varied from 3 to 10 percent in places such as the US, Australia and the EU.
“In the US about 70 percent of teens reported having a cellphone and nearly half of those had a smartphone. You don’t need to have a smartphone to send a sext but it does make it easier,” Ruiz said.
“One in four teens identified themselves as cell-mostly internet users so they are on their phone consistently gathering and using data.”
Ruiz said a review of research into the phenomenon had indicated that 10.2 percent of US teens had sent sexts, while 15.64 percent had received sexts. There was higher prevalence among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
She said a survey in Australia had shown the prevalence among 10- to 15-year-olds to be 18.42 percent who had sent a sext and 21.43 percent who had received one.
Teens were sexting for reasons ranging from trying to gain the romantic attention of a partner, experimenting, flirting and as pranks and practical jokes.
“Some people noted that they enjoyed the fact that this was somewhat of a risky behaviour and there is also significant concern especially among young women that there is at times an element of coercion and pressure to send one of these images of themselves,” Ruiz said.
Eight independent studies had found that teens who were sexting were four to seven times more likely to engage in sexual behaviour that included everything from holding hands to sexual intercourse, she added.
These teens reported lower emotional self-awareness and lower emotional self esteem, Ruiz said.
Protect your teens on cellphones
Childine SA’s Joan van Niekerk advised parents not to give a child a cellphone without knowing how to use it themselves, and to provide them with information and discuss the rules of use.
“Sign a contract together on appropriate use and the consequences of misuse. This teaches children to use their cellphone with respect for themselves and others - very few parents do this, and many don’t realise what a useful tool a written agreement is.
“Check occasionally what your child has been using the phone for. Encourage open communication without negatively labelling a child who has perhaps been involved in inappropriate sexting.”
Communication was the most important issue, she said.
Van Niekerk said parents should also listen and ask their child’s opinion rather than lecturing.