Sexting means using a phone or the internet to take, ask for, receive, send, or share intimate photos or videos, including where someone is naked, partly naked, posing sexually, or doing a sexual act (Youth Law Australia). Teens tend to use other words like ‘nudes’ and ‘dick pics’.
How common is it?
Most teens are not sharing nudes. Large surveys from the US, UK and around the world indicate that about 1 in 6 teens have sent a nude and roughly a quarter of teens have received one.
Why do teens do it?
Some teens exchange nudes because they are in a relationship and want to flirt, experiment, connect or show attraction. Some do it because they like how they look and want to show people.
But there are other reasons, too. Some teens send or ask for nudes because:
- they think they have to do it to keep a boyfriend or girlfriend happy
- they think it will make people like them
- they want a thrill or a laugh
- they want to shock, annoy or prank someone
- they have been pressured or blackmailed into it.
Some teens have received unwanted nudes or requests for nudes from strangers online.
Does sexting always go wrong?
Short answer: no. Studies from the US, UK and around the world show that many teens who send and receive nudes say that nothing bad happened afterwards.
However, some teens have had devastating experiences. Some have been blackmailed by people who threatened to share their nudes unless the teen gave them money or more nudes. Other teens have had their nudes shared without their consent – eg. by an ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend or other students at their school.
Teens who have been victimised can feel angry, humiliated, guilty or distraught. Some withdraw from school, friendships and family life, or struggle with their mental health.
No one should be blamed if their nudes were shared without their consent. It’s the person who shared the nude who made a bad choice: to violate someone else’s trust and do something that hurts other people.
Sharing someone’s nudes without their consent is called image-based abuse.
What can parents do?
It’s important to talk regularly with our teens about what’s happening in their friendship groups and agree on clear family rules about what’s OK and not OK to do online.
Parents also need to speak with teens about sexting. Important messages to share include:
- Whatever we might hear in the media, most people don’t send nudes.
- It’s always OK to say ‘no’ to something we don’t want to do – even if we are in a relationship and we love the other person.
- We should never share, save or look at anyone else’s nudes without their consent. We also need consent before we send a nude or ask for a nude. For tips on talking about consent, see Raising Children Network.
- Sending nudes doesn’t always go wrong, but it’s risky. Phones can get stolen, accounts can get hacked, and even someone we like might make a bad decision.
- If someone’s nudes have been shared without their consent, they are not to blame. They should be supported, not bullied.
- If something goes wrong online, it’s important to ask for help. Support is out there.
Teens should be aware that depending on where they live, any sexting involving under-18s might be against the law. Get details from Youth Law Australia.
Parents can talk with teens about how they could respond if they were asked to send nudes and didn’t want to. Some people just say ‘no’. Some block the person who asked. Some make a joke or send a funny picture of something else. Some send pics that are flirty but not graphic.
What if my teen has been involved in sexting?
- Stay calm and get the full story. Make clear to your teen that you’re glad you found out and that you will focus on finding a solution and keeping everyone safe.
- Nudes should be deleted from devices, social media and websites at once. If this can’t be managed, report it to the website or eSafety.
- Do not save, share or look at images of under-18s yourself.
- If someone’s nudes have been shared without consent, you can report it to eSafety to get images taken down and the matter investigated. You can also contact police.
- If an adult has tried to involve someone under 18 in sexting, you can report it to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation or police.
- If a student is at risk, contact your school’s wellbeing team.
- For further support, contact a trusted GP, sexual assault counselling service, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800, Dolly’s Dream Support Line 0488 881 033 or 1800 RESPECT.
- If someone is in immediate danger, call triple zero (000).
Supporting our most vulnerable teens
Any teens might get involved in sexting, but some are at higher risk. These vulnerable teens need support and care to deal with the struggles they face online and offline.
Sexting is more common among teens who have been cyber bullied, taken risks online or shown worrying use of tech, such as:
- visiting dating or gambling websites
- viewing disturbing material like anorexia or self-harming sites
- chatting with strangers online, then meeting them in person
- spending huge amounts of time online, with many different accounts
- feeling like they need technology to ‘escape’ from their lives.
Sexting is also more common among teens who may be going through real-life struggles, such as:
- teens with mental health concerns, especially eating disorders
- teens who live in out-of-home care or are young carers
- teens with disabilities or chronic illness
- teens who struggle with deep worry, unhappiness or anger
- teens who don’t describe themselves as male or female
- teens involved in risky, thrill-seeking behaviours
- teens who’ve had a number of sexual relationships
- teens who are same-sex attracted.
We must support all our teens to stay happy, healthy and kind online.