Sexting: OMG!! Have You Seen This Photo…???

By Barbara Spears.

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) Cybersmart website, the term ‘sexting’ is defined as ‘the sending of provocative or sexual photos, images, messages or videos using a mobile phone or posting online.’ (

Although the age of consent in Australia is 16, if young people under the age of 18 take or share provocative sexual photos, videos or images, there are quite serious legal and social consequences, even if all parties involved are willing participants and the same age. Sexting raises significant issues for school communities, as most students are under 18.

If the image is of a minor, then the individual who possesses or distributes the material might be in breach of the law because, according to the Criminal Code Act 1995, it is an offence “to access, transmit, publish, possess, control, produce, supply or obtain child pornography material through a carriage service, and carries a penalty of 15 years”. A further complication is that a child cannot consent to the taking or transmission of these images, and in taking and sending images of themselves, they commit these offences.

While these laws are intended to protect young people from paedophiles and others intent on harm, they are now being used to deter young people from sexting. But is it working? What role does changing technology have? The police in Adelaide are suggesting that as technology becomes more sophisticated, and younger children have greater access, then there is the potential for even more sexting
to occur.


The other significant outcome is that a child’s involvement in sexting behaviour could see them placed before the court and if convicted, listed on the Australian National Child Offenders Register (ANCOR), which is a nationwide data base used by State, Territory and Commonwealth Police and Judicial Services to record and monitor child sex offenders. While the law has a place as a deterrent, do we want to criminalise our children?

A recent study found that sexting is driven by peer pressure to share sexual images, highlighting the impact of a highly sexualised media culture, which constantly bombards them with sexual images ( The role of flirtation and sexual exploration in teen romance is not new. What is new is the impact that technology is having on it, and parents and teachers need to consider how to parent and guide young people to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships at this age, when cameras on phones can capture all manner of sexual exploration. The issues of moral engagement and the role of the bystander are also raised here: how do we educate young people to not forward images they may receive?

James Braithwaite, Team Leader Crime Prevention, High Tech Crime Operations, Australian Federal Police, poses some relevant questions here:

  • Has your school developed policies for dealing with sexting?
  • What role should the school and teachers play if the inappropriate behaviour occurs outside of school hours, yet impacts at school on the wellbeing of the young person?

Let’s look at this phenomenon more closely. Firstly, once an image is shared, control of it is lost. What goes online: Stays online, meaning that at any time in the future, it could surface. It also means that anyone, anywhere and anytime could be viewing it.

The chance of an image surfacing after a romantic relationship breaks down is one risk to consider. However, there are other unexpected relationship interactions which occur in and around the sharing of the actual photo, image or video. Consider this situation,
reported by a school counsellor in the DEEWR Covert Bullying study: Insights into the Human Dimension of Covert Bullying (

In brief, a teenage boy had taken a naked photo of his girlfriend. The young couple felt safe and protected, because they were in a trusting relationship. But the boy and his brother had an argument and to pay him back, the brother took the phone and sent the photo on to everyone in his phone contact list. The negative impact was immediate: the girl was humiliated and was teased and taunted throughout the school. The school tried to have the photos deleted, but found that they just couldn’t access the ones that had already been sent on. The romantic relationship broke up; the family had to deal with the fallout from the brothers; the girl left the school; the school community was in disarray over the two families concerned, and eventually the young woman left the town, fracturing her family.

What strategies can we employ to support our young people as they navigate their way in and around sexual relationships? An obvious strategy is to highlight the legal implications of the sexting behaviours, and also to recognise the short and long term consequences of protecting privacy and reputation. But surely we should be asking young people for their input. The law was made to protect young people from paedophiles and others intent on harm in a time before the advent of mobile technologies. Now anyone can publish and create content, so we should be aiming for prevention through education, and young people need to be brought into the conversation about how to do that.

Some resources for teachers and parents include:

Kids Helpline

Cybersmart has a set of teacher resources on sexting for middle years

Tagged, from ACMA/Cybersmart is a short film: What you do online could tag you for life

The Australian Federal Police Megan’s Story from Think U Know

Bullying No Way

Dr. Barbara Spears is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, University of South Australia. She has led the Australian Government investigation into Covert Bullying: Insights into the Human Dimension of Covert Bullying, and is a member of the evaluation team forKidsMatter, a national mental health initiativein primary schools.

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