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Sharing pictures. Parents finding joy in sharing every memorable moment of their children on Facebook.

Sharing nudes. Sexting is the hot topic of our time. Teens (and adults) swept into a culture that normalises self-exploitation, voyeurism and exhibitionism.

One of these things is not like the other. Or maybe it is…

On the Youth Wellbeing Project Facebook Page, I’ve often shared articles about the risks of posting kids photos online, particularly in school uniform. Sure, I understand how incredibly exciting it is to celebrate end of year achievements or special awards with close friends, but as I’m constantly reminding kids, ” www stands for ? ? ? ”

When something is uploaded into the never-never-land of the world-wide-web, we have limited control over it. And, if we haven’t switched off geotagging (location settings) on our phones, we could unwittingly be letting our child’s new closest follower know exactly where they live or regularly hang out. Given new research shows that it takes predators less than twenty minutes to persuade a child to meet, it’s imperative that parents know what they can do to prevent this from happening.

The other thing I wonder about is what digital footprint we are creating for our kids before they even have a say in it. When I go into schools and teach kids about their digital footprint, most of them will have one before they even create their first social media account. A huge percentage of parents share every conceivable moment of their kids lives online, all whilst tagging relatives, laughing over goofy moments and occasionally highlighting the frustrations of parenting. Some uploaded photos have been stolen and used on other accounts, whilst others are used by pedophiles (whether kids are clothed or not), to fantasise, sexualise and obsess over, photoshop and share with other predators. Even if pictures are posted with the very best intentions, once it’s online, a parent has no control over what happens with that image.

Whilst a young person may look on with smiles and appreciation at the photo sharing during the pre-teen years when they still think mum & dad are awesome, what about when they hit teen years and start to consider the digital trail they did not ask for? Some may still celebrate it. Some may wish it wasn’t there but not say anything. Yet others may look through a different lens – one that processes the ‘over sharing’ as incredibly embarrassing or even traumatising.

A teen in Austria falls into the latter category and is now suing her parents. She claims that 500+ images have made her life a misery, and photos that were shared without her consent include everything from nappy changing to potty training. What is perhaps even more upsetting for the daughter, is that her parents refuse to take them down and say that because they took the photos, the images don’t belong to her.

I believe that most parents would be reasonable and take down images if their child or teen was upset about them. But what can we teach our kids about photo sharing before it even gets to that point? To me, there’s a few key questions a parent can ask before they post that will instil great messages.

Tips for parents thinking about sharing pictures:

  1. global… Is this an image that both parent and child are happy about letting anyone in the world see? Yes, we may have tight privacy settings, or think that it’s only going to be shared with the person/s we choose, but once it leaves our hands, we ultimately relinquish control of that image given we have no control over other people’s behaviour.
  2. location settings… Have you switched off geotagging or location settings on your device? If not, go to Dr Google and ask how you can remedy this. If geotagging is left on for photos, a person with minimal tech skills can pinpoint where a photo is taken with accuracy of just a few metres.
  3. identifying information… Does the photo contain any identifying information such as school uniforms or place of work that would make it easy for someone to track them down? This may not even be a pedophile – a kid at another school who takes a disliking online and wants to get back at them can stalk their page and everyone they are connected with if they are intent on doing harm.
  4. consent… If our kids are old enough to ask them what they want for dinner, they are old enough to ask them if they are okay with their image being shared. Parents can teach their kids a valuable lesson about consent by this simple act.
  5. removal… Do they know that at any point, if they change their mind, they can ask you to take their images offline? This is also a perfect time to discuss how unrealistic it is to think that the image only ever stays in the circle it was intended. At any point, if someone chooses to be unscrupulous, that image can unfortunately be passed on without permission prior to it being pulled down.
  6. consent goes both ways… Do your kids know that they have to ask you before sharing photos of you online?  I’ve had to have a chat with one of my kids for posting a photo of me on instagram without my consent. They weren’t happy about pulling it down, but it really drove home the point that unless you have consent to post someone’s photo, don’t do it.

If we want to teach our kids about consent, respect and the type of online behaviour we would like them to have, asking them if we can post their pic and respecting their wishes is a good place to start. If we take those 6 points above and draw the parallels with sexting, here’s what we have an opportunity to teach our kids.

Tips for your teen about sharing nudes:

  1. global… Is a naked or half naked image something that a teen would be happy to let parents, aunties, uncles, neighbours, grandparents or anyone in the world see? Relinquishing control of an image carries a lot of risk.
  2. location settings… Make sure it’s turned off.
  3. identifying information… Does the photo contain any identifying information? I heard of a situation in Queensland where a teen boy was charged with self-distribution of child sexual exploitation material. In simple terms, he sent a dick pic. Police knew what school he went to and what year he was in. The orange pubes to match his orange hair were are dead giveaway. It’s rare for an image to exist without some sort of identifying information etched within the pixels so suggesting to teens that a naked pic is okay as long as you don’t show your face is untrustworthy advice, given that photo forensics are so incredibly accurate.
  4. consent… Are they feeling pressured? If so, that’s not consent. Are they (or their partner) experiencing big emotions when considering sending a nude – sad, mad, bad, hungry, lonely or crazy (in a fun, out of control kind of way).  Do your teens know that if they make an error of judgement and share their own sexual image with consent (perhaps in a moment of ‘prefrontal cortex meltdown’), that they can come to you and ask for help?  Does your teen know that it’s NEVER okay to share an image with people that were never intended to see it? Just because an image has been obtained, doesn’t mean they then own it and can do whatever they want with it.
  5. removal… Although there’s no guarantees, teens can ask for assistance to have nudes (child sexual exploitation material) taken offline. Go to the eSafety website to ask for their advice and assistance, and check out this great Canadian website for loads more info on measures you can take (keeping in mind that some advice will need to be considered through the laws in your area). The recent events of school girls photos ending up on a revenge porn site are a timely reminder that we have absolutely no control over other people’s behaviour. We need to be realistic about how much we relinquish control when an image leaves our hands. Many of the images on that particular site were swiped from snapchat. No, the images do not ‘disappear’ into thin air. Even though most of the underage images have been pulled down from the revenge site, the women’s images that are still online are spoken about as if they are a piece of meat. It’s disgusting. I’ve been on the site and it is seriously sickening to see the way that women’s pics are being traded and degraded – mostly without their knowledge.
  6. consent goes both ways… When it comes to regular images, if there is more than just ‘self’ in the pic, it’s important to gain free consent (an active willing ‘yes’) from the other person/s when posting. This is just common courtesy. Even an image that may seem ‘harmless’ or ‘fun’ to one teen can put another teen into a state of frenzy and mental health spiral if they are feeling particularly self conscious about the pic. Always consent to sharing. BUT when it comes to nudes…
  7. illegal… In most states, a naked image of someone under the age of 18 is illegal and considered child sexual exploitation material. Posting or sharing someone’s sexual images can attract heavy penalties and when things go wrong, can cause an incredible amount of trauma for the victim.All teens need to take responsibility for their own actions and not be a passive bystander when things get out of hand.

This conversation has all too often become a slanging match about making sure we don’t ‘victim blame’ and goes in a perpetual cycle of ‘playing the blame game’. Yes, young people make mistakes, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for not teaching them to take personal responsibility. Both guys and girls. And it’s also helpful to have a conversation about how much people (teens and adults alike) have been duped by a multi-billion dollar industry that has led them to believe that voyeurism and exhibitionism is normal.

It’s such a tough space to navigate and any teen or any parent can find themselves having to navigate the fallouts of sexting. In a digital age, it can be easy to overshare – for both teens and parents.

If we want to combat the normalisation of porn culture and help our teens understand the implications of sexting, parents have an opportunity to lead by example. Pause before we post. Consider the positive messages we can give our kids about photo sharing by modelling consent, taking responsibility, and being cautiously realistic about things that are outside of our control and adjusting our online behaviours accordingly.  If something is personal, sharing it with ‘friends’ on social media is no guarantee that it will stay ‘private’. Perhaps this ‘teachable moment’ slide used in the Youth Wellbeing Project IQ programs for primary kids is a helpful reminder to us all.

THANK YOU to everyone who has been sharing these blog posts and for all your great feedback.  If you have a topic you would like me to blog about, send an email or ASK ME through Vidoyen for a response via video. To enquire about my availability and professional speaking fees to present at your school, in-service, conference, community, youth or church event, enquire via email; or find sexuality education support at Youth Wellbeing Project.

Liz Walker

International authority on porn harms, education and advocacy.