‘Teenagers should be warned on sexting dangers’

Schools should incorporate the dangers of so-called sexting into their education programmes and codes of conduct, an expert on online sexual exploitation has said.

Dr Ethel Quayle, formerly of the COPINE Project in University College Cork which looked at the victimisation of children through the spreading of child pornography online, said many younger teenagers were unaware of the dangers of sending sexualised texts and pictures that could later be used to harass or bully them.

Dr Quayle, now a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, said schools needed to be “proactive” about outlining concerns over sexting and other types of possible cyberbullying.

She is one of a number of speakers at a conference on cyberbullying this weekend organised by the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology.

“There needs to be a more integrated approach about that [sexting] and it should be within schools,” she said.

“It needs to be integrated particularly in how we deal with bullying. It needs to be part of the way that we approach bullying in school and how we approach IT in schools and we also need more support for parents.”

There have been several recent cases where sexually explicit images or content linked to a young person have been disseminated among a larger group of people, often within a school setting.

Dr Quayle said such cases were relatively rare and young people did not need to be frightened by “scare stories”, but rather should be warned of the potential dangers and supported in cases where it did arise.

She said that in many cases, it was the “routine” manner in which young people were exposed to sexual content at a much younger age that disturbed or upset them over a period of time. She said sex education and advice on guarding against the spreading of sexual images or texts that may initially have been shared while in a relationship could be addressed at an earlier stage in schools.

“The evidence is it is really young teenagers who are more likely to beexposed [to online material] and that boys are more likely to be exposed to problematic content.”

In the past year, there have been a number of cases of teenage suicide in Ireland linked to cyberbullying, and Dr Quayle said: “There is going to be an increased focus on how to build resilience in young people.”

As for programmes in schools she said: “I think it should be proactive, we should be anticipating, we should be able to look at some of the consequences of mobile phone content and smart phones. Schools need to move away from catchup.”

This conference in Dublin will also hear from Prof Mona O’Moore of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Stephen Minton who will discuss a Vodafone guardian app.

Sanctions for cyber-bullies

Students who engage in cyberbullying should face sanctions such as suspension and expulsion, even if the bullying takes place away from school and outside school hours, a bullying expert has said.

Prof Mona O’Moore of Trinity College Dublin’s Anti-Bullying Centre said anyone engaging in cyberbullying should face the consequences, including measures such as community service, while also having the option of making amends for misdemeanours through restorative processes and counselling.

In light of several cases of teen suicide allegedly caused by cyberbullying, Prof O’Moore has analysed existing guidelines in other countries.

She is due to speak at a conference on cyberbullying today and said that in some instances Ireland was behind other countries in dealing with the problem. “Where we are slightly weak is we have not applied a ‘whole school’ approach to deal with cyberbullying.”

In addition to schools taking a proactive stance on bullying affecting students, she said more training needed to be provided to teachers and parents and that students themselves needed to take on greater civic responsibility, such as intervening in cases where cyberbullying is taking place.

Dr O’Moore said anyone engaging in cyberbullying should expect to face sanctions, but should also have the opportunity to “make good”, including measures such as in- school counselling, if they wished to make amends and stay in school.

She said parents and teachers needed to bridge the “digital divide” and that schools could also consider bringing in IT experts in cases of suspected cyberbullying, so as to pinpoint the culprits.

Cyberbullying often created a hostile environment within schools and needed to be tackled directly by school authorities, otherwise legislation might be needed, she added.

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