The high rate of sexting here has been blamed on a lack of relevant and coherent education on the topic in the country’s schools.
Irish teenagers were found to be the fourth highest in the EU for sending explicit messages, images or video, according to Dr Sheri Bauman, an expert in peer victimisation and cyberbullying and a professor of counselling at the University of Arizona.
Dr Bauman, who will address the Anti-Bullying Research Centre’s conference later today, found sexting was more frequent among 14-17 year olds and that over 25% of students, from a survey of 300 post-primary Irish schools, acknowledged sending the graphic messages. The research found 4.4% of boys and 1.6% of girls aged 11-16 engaged in the behaviour.
And according to James O’Higgins Norman, director of the Anti-Bullying Research Centre, his own organisation’s research has found that as many as 42% of teenagers will admit to having sent some form of sexual image by text.
“One of the reasons why Irish youth score so high in terms of sexting is related to a lack of a coherent relationships and sexualities education (RSE) programme in schools,” he said. “It is estimated that up to 50% of schools in Ireland do not deliver appropriate RSE and when it is delivered it can be formal and focus too much on disease, crisis pregnancy and other negatives instead of emotions and other complexities related to sex.”
A 2012 Department of Education survey of second-level schools found that nearly one-in-five stop teaching RSE between the time students sit the Junior Certificate and when they finish school. More than one-third of senior cycle students met by school inspectors in focus groups at over 60 schools in 2011 wanted a broader RSE programme provided.
Dr O’Higgins Norman said young people “don’t really seem to connect with the possible negative effects of sending a sexual image by text”.
Dr Bauman explained what those effects can be and the devastating long-term impact they can have.
“Once they become available in the cyber universe they can be misappropriated,” she told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke programme. “Someone can take them and forward them onto a very large number of viewers other than the intended recipient. They can be altered. In many cases both individuals, both the original person who sent it to perhaps an intimate partner and that person who forwards it on can be guilty of child pornography. So there are legal implications which could affect the rest of their lives if they were prosecuted.”
However, the biggest impact which can occur is on the person whose image has been taken and sent on to others and who now has no control over it. “They see ‘I’m flawed, I’ve done something terrible, the universe is not accepting of this behaviour, I’ve been labeled some very uncomplimentary terms. My future is hopeless because I have been told this is going to haunt me for the rest of my life’.”
That, she said, frightens people to such an extent that they think their life is over.
Dr Bauman also addressed how teenagers should be addressed by adults about sexting. She said there should be a frank discussion of sexuality in the context of relationships. She pointed out that it is normal to become curious and to experiment.
Dr O’Higgins Norman said there is a lot of ignorance and silence about the issue of sexting and a lot of parents and teachers wring their hands, stand back from it and say “I don’t want to know about that”.
“Schools have to get involved. Under the National Action Plan on Bullying 2013, schools are obliged to participate and support parents in relation to anything which affects how a child is getting on in school.”