Oliver, 15, had his phone confiscated by his parents a few months ago. This was after his mother discovered a series of graphic images of a naked 14-year-old girl on the device.
He had not been surfing porn websites. He had been given them willingly, so he claimed, by a girl at his school, who had taken the pictures of herself and sent them by text. A report last month discovered that the great majority of pupils aged 13 to 14 are familiar with “sexting”. The term conjures up images of Tiger Woods wooing barmaids with crude text messages. But it means something different to most teens. Sexting involves taking intimate pictures of yourself on a camera phone and sending them to fellow teens.
The report by Plymouth University, in conjunction with the UK Safer Internet Centre, highlighted how widespread the practice has become. And now experts believe a popular mobile phone app that allows photographs to “self-destruct” seconds after being viewed is likely to encourage the trend further. About 50 million photographs are taken each day with Snapchat, which was launched by Stanford students Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy in 2011. It enables users to set a timer on both picture and video messages so that they will disappear between one and 10 seconds after being opened. Just before Christmas, Facebook launched its version of the app, Poke. Jon Brown, head of strategy at the NSPCC, says the rise of sexting has been caused by a number of factors as well as cheap technology: “The access to hardcore porn on the internet is definitely influencing what is and isn’t acceptable. It has upped the bar in terms of what people think is normal. Secondly, the diet of images and messages they get from music videos encourages people to think that certain things are normal.” Sexting can leave a “digital footprint” behind, too. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, 88% of sexting images end up on public websites.
Gardner thinks better sex education is crucial. “It is our job, all of us, to ensure that young people are making good choices when using the internet. To really think about the consequences — that is everything from personal data to cyber bullying and sexting.”
Brown says: “It has to be co-operative. Any parent who says it is up to the school is shirking their responsibility. And any school who says it is entirely a family matter is shirking their responsibility.”
One thing is certain: the ever more sophisticated technology is not going to go away. And none of the kit can teach the most basic lesson of all to a group of children. Think before you click.