Why are young people sharing nude selfies?

2 Nov 2016 03:24 PM

Many young people are aware of the risks of sending naked selfies, but often choose to do so anyway because they see it as a fun and normal part of relationships, a study to be highlighted at the ESRC Festival of Social Science has shown.

The report found that children, some as young as 12, are sharing these photos - and for many of the study group, consisting of people who had shared naked photos under the age of 18, it was a natural way of exploring their sexuality and something they did with a trusted partner. Some however were coerced and threatened, often by strangers they had met online.  

The research findings of 'Self-Produced Images - Risk Taking Online' (SPIRTO) demonstrate the difficulties police, parents and schools face in distinguishing between normal, healthy behaviour and illegal abuse. Led by Dr Ethel Quayle at the University of Edinburgh, key findings of SPIRTO, which was funded by the European Union's Safer Internet Programme, included:

Rather than making a rash decision, most of the participants carefully considered whether or not to send a naked photo of themselves. Most were aware of the risks, and often took steps to mitigate them, such as not including their face in the photo, or any clear identifying marks such as tattoos. Many kept compromising photos of the other person as a sort of mutually assured destruction.

In the majority of cases, naked selfies were not shared beyond the intended recipient.
However, 16 per cent of the young people reported that their parents and the school had found out that they sent photos, usually because the images had been found on a mobile phone. Often this had led to the youngster receiving an intervention from the police, school staff and their parents, which had caused intense shame and embarrassment.

Twenty-two per cent also said their selfies were shown to their peers - in several instances this led to harassment, threats or bullying and the police getting involved.

"The experiences of the young people varied from coercive online grooming where children were pressured to produce images by use of aggressive threats, to the other end of the spectrum where the images were produced in a romantic and caring relationship," says Dr Ethel Quayle. "In between we saw different levels of what might be thought of as coercion, where children felt an expectation that sending selfies is what people are doing, and if you didn't do it there was something wrong with you."

The consequences of sending the images were not always absolutely catastrophic, but they were for some people.

The problem is how do we differentiate between sexting, which we may not like or approve of but is taking place in the context of a consensual romantic relationship, from something which we really need to take seriously?

Currently there aren't any guidelines to help police and social workers deal with cases where naked selfies taken by children have been shared without their permission. Police in the UK have to investigate if there is a suggestion another person may be involved, and it is enormously resource demanding for the police.  

Dr Quayle is now working with Dr Laura Cariola, a clinical psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, in a new ESRC-funded study which puts the concerns of children at the heart of policy recommendations. The young people are being asked how police, social workers, teachers and parents can help them when things go wrong - when a naked selfie is shared amongst the whole school or ends up on the internet. The preliminary results show that simply being listened to and not judged are the most important things a parent can do to help.

"Maybe we have to accept that where it is not abused by others, the creation of images within a romantic and sexual relationship is part and parcel of growing up for some young people," says Dr Quayle. "For some groups, such as lesbian, gay and bisexual young people, it may be that this is their only route into exploring their sexuality and first relationships."

However, we need to make sure that appropriate support structures are in place for when things may go wrong.

The results of this study will be presented as part of the Festival of Social Science invite-only event 'Let's talk about sexting', at Walpole Hall, in Edinburgh, on 11 November at 10.00.

You can find out more on this topic by watching the video series.

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