Sexting, sending explicit sexual messages and images via mobile phone, has come under fire in recent months after media outlets discussed the 'dangers' that young people face online. Newspaper headlines include "Do you know what your teenager is doing?" and "Leaving Cert students more likely to sext" have caused moral panic amongst parents and new research indicates just how disruptive this message can be.
According to The CollegeView, Dr. Mairead Foody, in partnership with the DCU Anti-Bullying Centre, has involved over 500 students, between the ages of 15 to 18, on sexting practices and their growing popularity. Dr. Foody has discovered that although sexting has negative connotations for older generations, sexting is a normal experience for adolescents:
[Sexting] fits in with the profile of an adolescent, where they are exploring their sexuality, they are exploring partners or potential partners, and they’re also spending a lot of time online and a lot of their social networks are completely online
According to Foody, sexting between consenting partners has become overshadowed by overly reported cases where sexting damaged the person involved. The problem may be a generational one and not as dangerous as mass media depicts:
Very often [older generations] assume that sexting goes hand in hand with some of the other very scary cases we see in the media, for example when someone exploits a young person online, or are grooming them online so they can send photos that would be categorised as child pornography. There is a big difference between a 14 or 15 year old boy and girl that are courting or in a relationship as opposed to an old man asking nine year olds for pictures of themselves
Laws in Ireland, specifically the Child and Trafficking and Pornography Act of 1998, states that the sharing or creating of sexually explicit images is illegal but Dr. Foody's research warns that this is problematic when it comes to penalising two consenting adolescents sharing images. Dr. Foody believes that students should be taught about the topic in classrooms through digital modules instead of being scared into not talking about it:
You could probably regulate for things like consent, and we could probably penalize people who have done something without consent, but we can’t really penalize the sharing of images between two people only if it’s part of a relationship, well I mean we can, but I don’t understand how that would be productive in any way.