This is the second of two parts of Alan’s interview with Mark Kavanagh, child protection and sexual exploitation researcher. They discuss self-generated sexual content involving children, that can bring up lots of complexities and questions.
What might be reflective of changing sexual behaviours and expectations for adolescents today and what should be treated as problematic or even criminal?
Technology is increasingly woven into the lives of young people and most online engagements bring benefits like social connectedness, access to information and opportunities for learning. However – as the real world has risks – young people’s online engagements do too.
It is from within this context that we need to have a better understanding of the ways that young people are self-generating and sharing sexual content using a range of technology, such as social media, chat apps and live-streaming services to share it online. Research shows that sharing sexual content by ‘sexting’ or ‘sending nudes’ is increasingly common. In a U.S. sample 40% of respondents aged 9-17 agreed that it was ‘normal’ for people their age to share nudes with each other. Similar trends were observed in lower- and middle-income countries, with a recent study reporting that eight per cent of internet-using 12-17-year-olds in Thailand said they had taken naked images or videos of themselves in the year before being surveyed.
Police are increasingly seeing self-generated sexual content involving young people being shared online. It is important to recognise that some of this content may be the result of coercion, including through extortion. However, little is yet known about how many scenarios involve the non-consensual distribution of images. It also seems that content is being willingly shared (at least at first) between young people directly. As adolescents tentatively explore their own sexual development, the online environment can be appealing to test out behaviours with a distance and safety not possible in real life. These circumstances can be especially tempting for young people with diverse sexual and gender identities, who may use the anonymity of online interactions to seek out peers and explore their identity in secret. The limited research that amplifies young people’s perspectives indicates that they see some positives, adolescents in a Swedish study expressed that sharing sexual content via technology could provide advantages in their relationships and/or increase their self-esteem. Yet the nature of technology also means such behaviours can open them up to a range of risks as the content exists permanently and can easily find its way out of the control of those who created it.
These are difficult issues and subjects to think about let alone discuss. Cultures that are traditionally conservative may struggle to grapple with these rapid technological and social changes.