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The effect of sexting and cyberbullying on children
Sexting and cyberbullying are relatively new terms, having only come about because of the evolution of technology. That secret photograph you might have taken ten years ago only seen by yourself, the print technician and the person you gave the photo to (as well as anyone that they showed the picture to – in person) has all but disappeared. Photo taking and the dissemination of images and information has increased to the point where if you send something just once to the wrong person (or even the right person, or so you think), or the wrong person has their camera phone out at the wrong time, that unwanted and uncensored image or information can be shared with everyone you know and even more people that you don’t.
But what does this mean for the youth of today and what impact does it potentially have on them?
Let’s first look at some of the normal social and emotional milestones that children aged 9-18 years reach:
- Their self-esteem develops based on their ability to perform and produce;
- They become more aware of their bodies and how they differ from each other.
- 12 – 14 year olds psychologically distance themselves from parents and rather identify with their peer group;
- Their social status develop largely in relation to group membership, they do not want to stand out from the crowd, they want to fit in;
- Social acceptance depends on conformity to observable traits or roles;
- With 15-17 year olds friendships are mainly based on loyalty, understanding and trust;
- Self-revelation is the first step towards intimacy;
- They start to explore their sexuality by playing games and role playing (e.g. truth/dare, kiss the bottle, strip poker, flirting, kissing, boy-girl relationships, stroking/rubbing, re-enacting intercourse with clothes on etc)
- They make conscious choices to trust and respect adults and expect honesty and straightforwardness from adults in return.
Based on the points above, you might understand why one could say that the psychological impact of cyber bullying and sexting is often more traumatising than the physical bullying itself because of the extreme public nature of both. Online exposure means that the whole world can witness the victim’s humiliation or the supposed triumph of the bully/perpetrator.
If we take a look at the American series Gossip Girl which portrays a website dedicated to diarising the “scandalous lives of Manhattans’ elite”. It is all about moments captured (i.e. overheard or actually recorded via video or photograph) and sent to a website. These “leads” are then strategically uploaded as and when will make for the most dramatic effect. For instance, images of girls in their underwear, videos of people kissing (sometimes a little more than just kissing), secrets being let out, friends being betrayed, all via their use of technology as they all try and “one up” each other with the only consequences being that of a personal nature. We also see in this series classic cases of what the results of this kind of oversharing can be, which include:
- Extreme humiliation;
- Dropping out of school;
- Admission to psychiatric care;
- Fear of rejection;
- Fear of being unfairly punished (phone taken away and left without outside contact);
- Low self-esteem;
- Loss of friends;
- Exclusion from social activities;
- Emotional stress;
- Feeling disgusted, upset or disturbed;
As a parent one might wonder how to convince yourself and your child of how dangerous these games are. Let us look at some real life local cases of cyber bullying and sexting and what the results can be (taken from the Centre of Justice and Crime Prevention’s (CJCP) paper on Legal Responses to Cyber Bullying and Sexting in South Africa):
- In April 2008 a businessman obtained an interdict against a Durban woman after she became obsessed with his 17-year-old daughter, whom she met in a MXit chat room. The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria prohibited the woman from contacting the businessman, his daughter, his son or any of his family members telephonically or electronically;
- In Springs, Gauteng, the mother of a 16-year-old girl obtained a peace order in terms of section 384 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1955 against another 16-year-old girl at her daughter’s school. This happened after the other girl apparently regularly humiliated the woman’s daughter on MXit. The daughter’s name also appeared on a MXit ‘slut list’, which contained the names of girls from various schools in Springs, including their addresses, telephone numbers and schools.
- In August 2009 Keeley Houghton (18) was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to harassment. She cyber bullied another 18-year-old girl for four years and threatened to kill her. Keeley was the first person in Britain to be sent to prison for cyber bullying;
- In September 2010 two teenage boys in Canada were charged with sexual assault, and possession and distribution of child pornography after they posted photographs on Facebook of the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl at a private party.
- In May 2011 a 17-year-old high school student in Illinios, US, was arrested for allegedly making a Facebook sex list, which contained the names of approximately 50 fellow students. The list detailed the victims’ sexual behaviours, sexual characteristics and physical appearance in explicit and derogatory language. The perpetrator was expelled from school and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct;
- A 13-year-old boy in Ohio was charged after school officials found a sexually explicit image of an eighth-grade girl on his mobile phone;
- In Florida, two teenagers were convicted of producing, directing or promoting a photograph featuring the sexual conduct of a child after they photographed themselves naked and engaged in sexual behaviour, and e-mailed the photograph to each another.
Remember, cyberbullying and sexting can be considered legal offences (see our previous article: http://www.parentscorner.org.za/blog/what-adults-should-know-about-sexting-and-cyberbullying-when-it-comes-their-children) and parents (and teenagers) need to know and understand that they do have the ability to file a lawsuit against the perpetrator of the offence. The above article also gives advice on what you, as a parent, can do to help your child should he or she be exposed to or taken part in either cyberbullying or sexting.
Resource: Centre of Justice and Crime Prevention’s (CJCP) paper on Legal Responses to Cyber Bullying and Sexting in South Africa