Sending sexually explicit messages and pictures is so widespread among teenagers that parents should see it as a new form of courting, a report says.
However, a government cyberbullying expert has warned that acceptance of "sexting" is flawed and dangerous, for parents and teens.
The study's lead author, Anne Mitchell of Melbourne's La Trobe University Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, said sexting "appears to be happening universally and, while we need to be aware of the harm that can come if those messages are sent out far and wide or misused, it doesn't appear to be doing harm for the majority of kids".
But former Secondary Principals' Association president Patrick Walsh - now chairman of a Ministry of Education group investigating cyberbullying in schools - said sexting had been flagged as a serious issue in a survey of principals, and was also of concern to police, university deans and guidance counsellors.
"We think sexting is very, very dangerous and students need to be dissuaded."
Sexting that involved those under 16 was akin to child porn and could lead to prosecution. Images could end up fixed eternally in cyberspace, while the often fickle nature of teenage love affairs threw up its own pitfalls.
"The idea that sexting is courtship is flawed, misguided and dangerous," Walsh said.
"Because of the adverse and long-term effects, it's something that should be resisted by parents. Do parents really want a naked image of their daughter splashed around in cyberspace?"
He was backed by Wellington College principal Roger Moses, who said sexting was inextricably linked with cyberbullying, and the idea that it should be accepted as a normal part of youthful courtship was "absolutely inappropriate" academic nonsense.
"Why? Because of the potential fallout - you get youngsters who've made one bad decision and their self-esteem is smashed to smithereens and it's the teachers who have to pick up the pieces."
Tawa College student Briana Boele van Hensbroek, 16, said sexting was common but not talked about openly, as it was a shameful subject.
She knew of a boy who had become the victim of a "revenge sext" after a sour split with his girlfriend resulted in her showing a graphic picture of him to her friends. "I'm not sure people realise how dangerous it is - in the moment they think it's a good idea but later they regret it."
The Australian research found seven in every 10 sexually active 15 to 18-year-olds had sent explicit text messages. Half had sent naked or semi-naked photographs or videos of themselves, and 84 per cent had received explicit messages by phone or email.
NetSafe executive director Martin Cocker said sexting was being dealt with by the introduction of the Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which would create a civil enforcement regime to resolve privacy breaches through mediation and the courts.
The bill, which has passed its first reading, accepted the reality of sexting while enshrining a person's right to expect privately shared material would stay that way, he said. "Unfortunately the idea that you can convince young people not to do it as a safety mechanism is false."
- The Dominion Post
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