The infamy surrounding the Snapchat mobile app has brought the issue of sending explicit images and videos (a practice known as sexting) into the mainstream conscious, concerning parents and teachers alike. The self-deleting nature of images sent via Snapchat has made it popular for the sending of intimate photographs, but sexting is also carried out by MMS (a multimedia text message), BBM (the Blackberry messenger app), MSN messenger and even email. In fact, any service capable of sending and receiving pictures can also be used for sexting.
Statistics released by Childline, the child protection charity, suggest that more than half of children aged between 13 and 18 had received a sexual photo or video via a messaging app in the past. Perhaps more concerning still was the discovery that 40% of young people had created images themselves, and that 25% had then sent those images to someone else.
Although most of the young people questioned admitted sending these images to their boyfriend or girlfriend, 15% had sent the pictures to total strangers.
Problems associated with sexting
Although the Childline statistics suggest that sexting is fairly common among teenagers, few are prepared for the potential consequences of their images becoming public. According to NSPCC interviews, young people experience an understandable level of extreme embarrassment when their pictures are passed on, leaving some feeling suicidal. There is also poor understanding amongst young people of the “never forget” aspect of the Internet – once posted, content is almost impossible to remove.
The media and parents are both concerned about the potential problems posed by strangers, but the NSPCC found that the greatest risks to young people came from their peers. People known to young people are more likely to pressure each other into providing sexualised images, rendering common advice about “stranger danger” irrelevant.
There is also a strong feeling among young people that because their parents do not fully understand the prevalence of sexting, that they are also unable to seek help when something does go wrong.
Zipit – sexting advice and education
To address the lack of general advice about dealing with peers, ChildLine has worked with the Internet Watch Foundation to create the new Zipit app. Specifically intended to be light-hearted, Zipit contains practical advice for young Internet users on addressing approaches from friends and strangers.
Users of Zipit learn how sext messages can go far beyond the person to whom they were sent, and how such images can cause later embarrassment. Teens are also warned how self-destructing images sent through Snapchat can be saved and passed on by recipient. There is also guidance provided for flirting safely online so that conversations can be steered away from sensitive topics or other issues that may cause embarrassment or discomfort.
The advice is backed up with a number of humorous images that can be sent back to people requesting intimate pictures. From puns on the word “dirty” to funny rebuffs for requests for nude pictures, the Zipit app has something for almost any situation that will help to diffuse tension without causing further embarrassment to either texter. Teens are encouraged to send the pictures via email, text, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram (among others) – anyplace where they may be receiving unwanted sexual advances.
Zipit – providing help as well as advice
Finally, in the event that the user has sent a naked picture that has later been distributed elsewhere online, the Zipit app provides advice on how best to get it removed. Hosting sexual explicit or naked pictures of persons under 18 is illegal so, in many cases, teens will be directed to the Internet Watch Foundation website to report a criminal offence. Users can also call ChildLine free directly from the app for advice from a trained professional.
The Zipit app is available free from the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPod, Google Play for Android smartphones and BlackBerry App World. ChildLine has also made much of the advice and the images available via its Facebook website for teens who do not own a smartphone.
Written by Alexandra Johnson, a technology and social media fan.