How to have “The Online Talk”

Thursday 1 September, 2016

I wish I could say I was shocked to see the news about the police investigation into a pornographic website targeting Australian school girls. Sadly, these stories are becoming too familiar.

As KidsHelpline states so succinctly, “Advances in mobile phones combined with normal risk-taking behaviour and sexual experimentation by young people in their teenage years creates a perfect storm for sexting.” An explicit image shared via phones can end up online for the world to see.

It’s up to us as a community of parents, family, teachers and friends to equip our daughters with the information that will help them to make good choices. This involves instigating conversations we don’t really want to have, hearing things we really don’t want to hear and harnessing the very tools that enable sexting and sharing images to happen in the first place.

The fact is that our teenagers are digital natives, so no matter how much we warn them about the permanency of online actions and behaviour they just may not ‘get it’. They have grown up being able to buy songs, movies, clothes, tickets, anything in a click. They have been conditioned to perceive the digital world – and social media especially – as disposable, instant, forgettable. They have been exposed to images we could only imagine in our day.

They rely on and trust the same digital world that can also cause such harm.

The lesson here is that although the internet can be a danger, it can also be a useful tool. In fact, teenagers may be more likely to accept a lesson in reality from the internet than a warning from their parents.

The website clearly list the facts, laws and potential penalties for transmitting sexually explicit images, and can help to cement the message that sexting is an offence. I highly recommend allowing your daughter to fully explore this site to find out the facts without having to voice awkward or incriminating questions.

Another good idea is to google “Australian teenagers charged with sexting”. The list of articles shows that teenagers are now being charged, expelled from school or restricted from overseas travel, which dispels common schoolyard myths that boys (even boyfriends!) won’t share explicit images and that no-one ever gets caught or suffers consequences of these actions.

Resist the urge to talk at or lecture your daughter about this issue, and instigate an open conversation instead. It can be helpful to ask general or open questions, such as “do you feel there is pressure around sexting?” or “do you know any good tactics to deal with demands for sexting?”.

The aim is to try to get the girls to see the biggest risk – that if they send an image of themselves, it may not stay with the intended recipient. This could end in a criminal record, not to mention an unwanted place on a horrible website for all the world to see.

In the event that your daughter or someone she knows is worried about a sexting image they have sent or shared, they will need your support and your cool, calm head. A good place to start is the website which suggests a course of action that starts with tracking down and deleting any shared images and includes information about how to report victims of sexting to the Police.

At the end of the day, it’s important to accept that teenagers make mistakes. Girls who have been involved in sexting or the pornography website under investigation may be traumatised, fragile and scared, and will need our empathetic support and genuine, unconditional love.

The KidsHelpline website reminds us that “Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.” I couldn’t agree more, but I would also add one further point: Instigate that tricky conversation. Today. Our girls’ digital footprints depend on it.

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