Harm minimisation messages around sexting

technology/sexting Sep 16, 2021

Sexting is probably not a topic you feel comfortable talking to your teens about. However, it is really important that they learn the legalities of sharing this type of content and don’t feel shame for wanting to engage in this. 

I read this Canadian article that defines some key terms and legal issues related to exploring sexuality online and through technology, and outlines why harm minimisation is the best approach to take when it comes to tackling sexting.

We need to meet teens where they are at. This means not pretending that sexting isn’t something they have considered, will consider or have engaged in. This is a way that they are exploring their sexuality and intimate connections with others. This can be hard to accept, but instead of shaming teens for sexting or just telling them they shouldn’t be doing it, we need to give them information on it and how to be more safe. This helps them make more informed decisions around sexting and can be safer if they do choose to partake. I agree with Dr Tessa Opie on this educational approach. 

It also might not be as common as you think. Dr Opie comments that sexting has become an increasingly "normative" part of young people's interpersonal interactions but that does not mean all young people are participating. A study of Australian students in years 10, 11 and 12 demonstrates this, with:

50.7% had received a sexually explicit written text

44.1% had received a sexually explicit image/video

40.4% had sent a sexually explicit written text

32% had sent a sexually explicit image/video

5.8% had sent a sexually explicit image/video of someone else

Results from the 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society

Not every teen is thinking about sexting, not every teen wants to try it out, it’s not a part of every teen’s journey in exploring their sexuality. Even if this is something your teen has expressed doesn’t interest them, it’s still important for them to know about how to be safe online, especially if later in their life, they choose to partake in sexting. 

Firstly, help them understand the legalities of sexting in whatever state/territory/country you are in. It’s important for everyone to know the age of consent laws, so make sure that you and your children know what they are where you live. 

You can find the age of consent laws in Australia here. For information on the laws surrounding young people and dating, Youth Law Australia is a great resource, particularly their sex and dating section. Some places have different rules and restrictions when it comes to under age people sending nude images and what is classified as consensual or child pornography, so please read up on what the laws are for your child. 

Make sure that when you are discussing the laws that your children don’t feel shame, guilt or that you are saying they should never be involved in sexting. Having them understand the laws is so they are best protected and know the boundaries of safely sexting for their age group. 

Because we don’t want teens to feel shame and want to avoid taking an abstinence only approach to this conversation, you then introduce them to some harm minimisation strategies. 

The article describes why Canadian schools have embraced a harm minimisation approach on this topic:

“...Admittingly, we used to teach an abstinence-based approach to sexting, but for the past 5 years, at the high school level, we have now taken more of a hybrid abstinence/harm reduction approach that we developed with the help of teens. Yes, we still share that it is more desirable to not share an intimate image with others given that in 42% of incidents they get reposted. However, if they do, we then provide a harm reduction framework for their consideration to help reduce harm should the pictures become public.

By following this sexting protocol, if the image does go private, then your teen has “deniability”, they can say that’s not me that is someone else, which substantially reduces the emotional, psychological, physical, and social harms to your child.”

Now that we know why this is a good approach for teens, let’s start implementing some harm minimisation tactics that can help protect our teens. 

I really love the tips included in this article so here they are:

#1: Make sure your face is not in the picture. This will help provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#2: Make sure there are no scars, tattoos, birthmarks, or jewelry in the pictures that are specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#3: Make sure that there is no identifiable clothing, like a school shirt, that is visible and/or is specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#4: Make sure the background is neutral and not taken in your bedroom or your bathroom that can be identified back to you.

#5: Turn off automatic backup of photos on your device so that pictures are not uploaded to a file or the cloud. You want to prevent external access by others.

#6: Scrub all meta-data from the picture, such as the longitude and latitude of where the picture was taken or the type of device used to take the picture. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#7: Lock your device and any file apps so that others who may access your phone will not have the ability to access any pictures on your device that they could copy/forward to others.

#8: Make sure your “Find My Device” application on your phone is turned on. If you have forgotten to lock your phone and you have misplaced or lost it, you can now remotely wipe any pictures that are on the phone.

#9: Use a translucent watermark of the name of the person that you are sending the nude to, and hide it in the picture so that it is not visible. There are several free apps on the market that will allow you to do this such as “PS Express”. By taking this step, if the person you sent the picture to now sends this picture to others without your permission, there is a covert digital bread crumb that will help the police to prove that the suspect distributed the picture.

#10: Make sure that you attach a message to the picture that says, “Not to Be Shared”. Here in Canada, this will help police with proving the offence of “Non-Consensual Distribution of An Intimate Image” if the receiver does send it to others outside of a relationship without your consent.

#11: Play copyrighted music in the background of any intimate videos sent.  Given that many (not all) popular social media sites are now using algorithms that do not allow videos that have imbedded copyrighted music from being posted, it helps to reduce the risk of a video going viral on their platforms…”

Before you wrap up your conversation on sexting with your teen, there is one more important thing they need to know about: image-based abuse.

Image-based abuse is when an intimate image or video is shared without the consent of the person in that image or video. This is probably something you will cover when you discuss the legalities with them (Australian image-based laws can be found here). 

What teens need to know is that there are services that can help them if this happens to them. The eSafety Commissioner website is not only an incredible resource around online safety and sexting, but can be used to report image-based abuse and have pictures/videos that are shared without consent taken down. 

You can make a report about cyberbullying, image-based abuse and harmful content here. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about making image-based abuse reports, and here is the form to make an image-based abuse report

Remember to remind your teens not to feel pressured into sexting. It doesn’t matter if this is something their friends are doing, or something their partner really wants to do with them, they should never feel like they have to partake in it. It may be something they are not ready for or just something they aren’t interested in, that’s okay. Like any other type of sex, sexting must be consensual for everyone involved. 

And if they do choose to, at least now they are equipped with the best knowledge on how to reduce the potential risks. 


Resources :

E Safety Commissioner

Youth Law Australia 

Sex Positive Parenting Blog

Online Safety & Sexuality Impact On Kids: 3 Experts Chat Blog