Children as young as ten and teenagers are putting themselves at risk by sharing sexually explicit photos via mobile phones with their friends and partners, charities have warned.
‘Sexting’ pictures can easily end up posted on the internet, in the wrong hands or being shared by vengeful lovers, experts have warned.
Sussex Police is warning people could end up with a criminal record over the practice, as authorities grapple with the trend.
Liam Hackett, founder and chief executive of Brighton-based anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, said they get about 15 enquiries every month about sexting and said the trend was “on an incline”.
Often the enquiries concern young girls or young women who have found their images shared against their will.
Mr Hackett said: “There is a kind of a lad culture in which these pictures are almost seen as trading cards, where people collect these images of young people and show them round their friends.
“And that can spread out of control really quickly and often the person does not know anything about it.
“A lot of young people say they are experiencing these sorts of issues and find it really difficult to talk about because they find it embarrassing.
“Young people are going to extreme lengths as a way of coping; there are high rates of self-harm, high rates of abusing substances.”
He said one student dropped out of her Sussex college and developed severe social anxiety after an image of her was shared among her peers.
He said: “Somebody she trusted shared an image of her and it went viral around her college.
“I think the impact it can have on somebody’s self-esteem and welfare is underestimated.”
That was echoed by Martha Steine, an expert practitioner at Engage, who has been working with three teenage girls in Crawley suffering the same problem.
All three sent sexual photos to their boyfriends that were seen by a large number of people in the girls’ schools.
They became withdrawn and started skipping school as a result, Mrs Steine said.
She believes the problem is wide-spread after seeing the same problems cropping up at centres in East Grinstead and Brighton.
She said: “They send selfies to their boyfriends, not completely naked, but showing intimate parts of their bodies and these photos end up being shown to other boys in the boyfriends’ group.
“Sometimes these girls are finding out about their photo being shown around the school by their friends who have found out from a boy who has seen it.
“They are now reluctant to go to school and absence is becoming a real problem.”
She added the trend was fuelling self-consciousness among girls about their bodies.
She said: “This used to be flirting.
“But the flirting of a few years ago has turned into this.
“And the way teenagers flirt now is by sending photos to each other and there’s an increased pressure on youngsters to go along with this.
“The girls feel pressured by their girlfriends and by this culture.”
Objectifying women Sexting is crossing to the mainstream and to younger people with the popularity of smart phones.
People often use applications such as What’s App or Snapchat to send each other instant images.
But while many use Snap Chat feeling secure that it only stores the image for a few seconds, experts warn the images can be stored for longer.
That rings true with one 19-year-old who spoke to The Argus, who said the recipient took a screenshot of the photo on their mobile phone.
The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “It starts off as fun and games, but then it can come back and bite you and be used against you.
“Snapchat is one of the worst apps you can use to send photos because people can screenshot them.”
She said men on dating sites were increasingly asking, sometimes even pressurising, for photos: “It will be within seconds, usually minutes, but it doesn’t often get to hours.
“If they get the impression you’re not going to send them anything then sometimes they will just stop talking to you.
“They’re not going to muck around being nice to you if all they want is a photo to show their friends.”
A lot of requests came from online dating site Tinder, she added, but also from other dating sites, Facebook and all sorts of social media.
She said: “It’s never people you actually know and I think there’s an element of the keyboard warrior in that.
“They wouldn’t show that bravado if they were talking to you in person.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of the people who are using these sites aren’t actually who they say they are as well.
“I’m not dumb enough to follow through with any of that, but I’d imagine girls at school or whatever could fall into that trap.”
Charities have stressed that it is not just women at risk.
Mr Hackett said: “There does tend to be a culture of objectifying women.
“But I think it is a complex issue and I think it’s dangerous to say this is something that only affects women.
“Then unfortunately any young men that do experience it are discouraged from coming forward.”
Mrs Steine said men were also under pressure from their peers to obtain the sexual photographs if they were texting a girl.
Children as young as 10 The issue is swinging into focus for authorities, with Sussex Police warning it is “an offence under the sexual offences act to take or make an indecent photo, or distribute or possess an image of someone under 18”.
But criminalising youngsters for the practice is controversial and not one recommended by policing authorities.
The Association of Chief Police Officers has released guidelines recommending that “prosecution options are avoided, in particular the use of legislation that would attract sex offender registration”.
They add: “The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has become aware that, in certain circumstances, there is a risk that police forces may focus too narrowly on the criminal justice element of self-taken indecent images rather than wider safeguarding issues.”
ACPO recommends cases are dealt with individually, adding that: “Children and young people creating indecent images of themselves may be an indicator of other underlying vulnerabilities and such children may be at risk in other ways.”
They recommend children in sexting cases are referred to children’s social services and are wary of a child being labelled as a “sex offender”.
“A child would not usually be in possession of or be distributing these images because they have an inappropriate sexual interest in children,” they add. “Rather in the majority of cases, it will be as a result of their normal teenage sexual development combined with risk-taking behaviour.”
Dan Raisbeck, co-founder of Brighton-based anti-bullying charity The Cybersmile Foundation, agrees that criminalising young people is not the best way forward.
Mr Raisbeck, inset, who said he had heard of sexting among children as young as ten, said: “Sexting is a particularly difficult issue to approach with children, and obviously because of the sexual nature many of them feel it is almost a rite of passage.
“So it is more a question of awareness and education and being able to help these kids much more.
“If the person who is most at risk is the person sending pictures of themselves, then criminalising that person is not really a solution.
“The message needs to get across that once you send anything on the internet you do not own it anymore; once you send it you lose control, it can end up anywhere.
“It is a question of being aware of the risks involved. I think that is going to be more effective than saying it is possible criminal activity.”
Sussex Police is also working with Sussex schools, delivering sessions about sexting.
A police spokesman said: “We want young people to understand that they are potentially putting themselves at risk and also breaking the law, which they often don't release.”
But dealing with the issues is not going to be easy, Mrs Steine from Engage said: “Teenagers now have such easy access to porn that the expectation on girls is so much higher.
“What I’m trying to do is highlight the issue and encourage an open line of communication between teenagers and their parents.
“Often students will go to their peers to talk about this sort of thing and because of the culture it is deemed ok to send photos and all the rest of it. “It’s very difficult to control the internet and parents can’t be on their guard 24/7.”
Some teenagers are fighting back, however, often using the very technology used against them.
The NSPCC has developed an app with young people to help them combat sexting pressure.
Zipit is packed with “killer comebacks”, the charity said, to sexting requests including: “Never. Gonna. Happen.”.
Cybersmile’s Mr Raisbeck said: “It is not a complete solution by any means, but it shows how coping mechanisms are being picked up on in this quite new arena.”
‘Alpha-male macho thing going on’
One man who spoke to The Argus about his sexting habits said: “I think it’s come from school really.
“I was always chatting about it with mates and stuff and the introduction of social media was quite big.
“That’s when everybody started texting girls and it just seemed to be a natural progression to send pictures.
“It’s become a lot more popular with the development of technology and social media and the different apps you’ve got at your disposal too.
“As a guy, you’re essentially texting a girl to sleep with them in my opinion.
“Men have this alpha-male, macho thing going on and want to be successful.
“If their mates are getting photos and they aren’t then they’re going to get banter from the boys, so I can definitely see that side of it.”
It causes distress
A Sussex police spokesperson said: “Sexting can cause offence and distress. Young people, and people of all ages, should beware of being drawn into it.
“It can amount to a criminal offence and can be reported to Sussex Police at any time via 101 or www.sussex.police.uk/help-centre/report-something-online.