Hello again! Welcome to Swimming Lesson #2! Our last “lesson” was on Cyberbullying, but today, we will be talking about Sexting. Sexting is where many sharks like to swim. There are two types of Sexting that I will be focusing on: the first- when an intimate image is shared with someone the person knows, and then it spreads from there. The second type- someone is groomed and lured into sending images to a “stranger,” i.e., the Great White Shark. It is important to note that anyone of any gender, socio-economic status, race, or geographic location can be victimized by predators through Sexting. Since adolescents are at more risk of this type of victimization, we will be looking through that lens, but the information is valid for anyone.

 

So everyone has the same understanding of what Sexting is; the definition I will be using is: Sexting is either talking about sexual acts or sending provocative or naked pictures through text or other electronic means. 

 

Unfortunately, thousands of adolescents (but remember- this can happen to anyone; an example might be an ex who shares images for revenge) have fallen victim to the first kind of Sexting. They send a private image to someone they care about and somehow, that image is shared with others without the original sender’s permission. 

 

Here are the cold facts: 

  • if someone under the age of 18 sends a private image of themselves to anyone (it doesn’t matter if the other person is the same age or not, or if they are in a relationship or not), the person who sent the image could be charged with distribution of child pornography; 
  • the person who receives (again, it doesn’t matter if the person who sent it to them is the same age or not, or if they are in a relationship or not) the image could be charged with possession of child pornography; 
  • If the person who receives the image then shares it with others, they could be charged with distributing child pornography, even if consent was given by the person in the image;
  • Suppose the person who receives and shares the image is over the age of 18 and is convicted of possession and distribution of child pornography? In that case, they could be potentially facing a lengthy prison sentence and be registered as a sex offender. 

 

This is serious stuff. The bottom line is that anyone under the age of 18 should not be sending or receiving intimate images under any circumstances. Anyone over the age of 18 can legally send and receive intimate images but must be aware of the risks.

 

That’s the theory, but as we all know, theory and reality rarely match up- especially when we are dealing with adolescents. As parents or guardians, we all know how well the “Don’t do this because I said so” line works with adolescents (I wish there were a font for sarcasm because if there were, I would have used it for that sentence). We would be kidding ourselves to think that young people are not sending and receiving intimate images. Although specific numbers are difficult to find and often outdated, it is estimated that 25% of teens in Grades 7-11 have either sent or received a sext. Another study states that 1 in 4 teens have received sexts, and 1 in 7 have sent them.  

 

I’m a big believer in looking at an issue head on and then trying to find solutions to address the issue. I also believe that most people are good, and that parents and guardians want to protect and empower the young people in their lives. 

 

In this situation someone sends a sext to someone they trust, and then those images end up on a public forum. Simply saying “Don’t do it” probably won’t work. So what do we do? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the single best way (in my opinion) of protecting our youth is to create open, honest communication. Build a relationship with your child where they can come to you at any time when they have questions or concerns. 

 

All relationships take work. Fortunately, a relationship between parent and child starts on a solid foundation- love. It is up to us, the adults in the relationship, to put in the effort. Ask, and then truly listen, how your child’s day went, how their friends are, what they are doing tonight, etc. The key is to be genuinely interested in your child and listening to what is important to them. Pay attention to what they say and how they say it; does their tone change quickly? Are they avoiding answering you? These are red flags that you may want to explore. Sometimes talking to a teenager can feel like walking on a frozen pond: it’s fine if the ice is thick enough but if we hear a crack we need to tread lightly. We may have to back up and look for another way to walk so we don’t break the ice and end up neck-deep in ice-cold water.

 

Most people (young and old alike) are familiar with the dangers of sexting. If you ask your teenager you might get the proverbial groan, “Yes mom (or dad, or however you like to be referred to)… I know…” with the eye roll that tells you they don’t want to talk about it. You could say something like “I’m glad you know what sexting is, and why it is dangerous, but I want you to hear it from me. I care about you. Sometimes things may start out innocently but then things get out of hand. If something like that ever happens to you I want you to know you can come to me and I will do everything in my power to help you.”

 

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the social consequences of sexting can be very different for boys and girls. There have been countless cases where young girls have sent a picture of themselves to a boyfriend or someone they trust and the picture has been shared and suddenly the “whole world” can see it. Often this leads to cyberbullying, which we talked about earlier. I don’t mean to imply this can’t or doesn’t happen to boys, because it can and it does, it’s just more common involving girls.

 

The second type of sext exploitation involves a predator swimming in cyberspace watching and waiting for a victim. These predators, much like Great White Sharks, are lethal, cunning and ruthless. However, Great White Sharks aren’t doing anything wrong- they are hunters looking for food so they can survive. Online predators are also lethal, cunning and ruthless; however, unlike the Great White Shark, they know they are committing crimes. They are unbelievably skilled at finding prey for their pleasure, not survival.

 

No one is at fault if an online predator targets them. All of the responsibility lies with the predator alone. They are technologically skilled, incredibly adept at finding weaknesses, and exceptionally proficient at manipulating people.

 

How it starts is someone (typically the predator is male, but not always) creates profiles on multiple platforms- game sites, social media sites, etc. Usually, these fake profiles are made to look like they are a typical youth, with nothing that would warn anyone that they are not who they claim to be. Then they just swim around, watching, interacting with others on the site, just like everyone else. (no red flags yet)

 

These interactions all seem normal and innocuous, but in reality, they are far from either. The predator identifies someone they are interested in and does some research. It is incredible what you can find out about people on the internet. They start asking personal questions and soon ask their “prey” to talk with them privately—red flag. Once the victim begins talking with the predator privately, the predator will say anything needed to gain the trust of the person they are targeting. After trust has been established, the predator begins to push boundaries, and conversations may turn sexual. (S)He may ask the youth (remember- victims can be either male or female, depending on the predator’s preference) to send pictures. If the victim sends images, the predator is thrilled. From there, the predator continues to torture his victim in various ways, including threats of sharing the images or hurting the victim’s family unless more images are sent. Sometimes the predator may demand payment for keeping the images private. This is called sexual exploitation. 

 

These actions are all beyond Red Flags; they are criminal and cruel. If anyone, regardless of age, gender, socio-economic status, finds themselves in this type of situation, it is essential to remember a few things:

  • The predator is a skilled hunter. 
  • All of the blame needs to be squarely placed on the predator. If victims are “guilty” of anything, it is only of being naive. I would hate to live in a world where being innocent and naive were considered things to be “guilty” of. 
  • Help is out there. If you are in a situation like this or worried your child may be in one of these situations, reach out for help. There are professional agencies whose whole purpose is to help victims and catch these criminals. Cybertip.ca, https://www.cybertip.ca/app/en/ is a Canadian tipline and resource for reporting and learning about the online sexual exploitation of children.

 

Swimming in the ocean can be beautiful and exhilarating. Being online can be fun and educational. But, like swimming in the ocean, when we are online, we need to be aware of what is going on around us and know when we need a lifejacket. Asking questions, talking with your children, and reaching out when you have questions or concerns is that lifejacket. Staying safe is the goal, and fortunately, most of the time, online interactions are safe. We don’t need to be afraid- we need to be aware and empowered. Hope this helped!

 

As always, email me with your thoughts and ideas… Have any questions? Let me know… . If you need immediate support with anything regarding sexual violence, please call Dragonfly Centre at 780-812-3174 or use our online chat support on our website.

 

Until next time… Let’s Keep Making the Shift!

Sandi