Worrying findings have been reported this week that girls as young as six have been caught trying to send explicit texts during lockdown.
Children have been confined to their homes for weeks on end and the lack of face-to-face interaction that is an consequence of the pandemic has been a concern for many parents.
So little wonder that young people have been turning to technology to satisfy their communications needs. While online networks have provided many positive opportunities and given some welcome relief from the inevitable loneliness and boredom, data from SafeToNet – an app that blocks children from sending harmful or inappropriate messages – has revealed a dark side to the rise in online interaction.
It seems that sexting is at the top of the agenda again. While this is certainly not a new problem, fresh statistics highlight that it continues to be rife among school-age children and that lockdown has served to further accelerate this type of behaviour.
The number of “sexts” written by children in the UK rose by 183 per cent during lockdown and this significant increase is a cause for serious concern. Furthermore, it is frightening that children as young as six are counted among the statistics and this should be a wake-up call for everyone.
So, where are we going wrong with this issue?
Four years ago, I wrote an article for this newspaper on the very same topic after Jeremy Hunt had called for a crackdown on cyberbullying and sexting. However, in those four years, it seems that little has changed. Rather, the problem continues to bubble away in the background and, according to these latest findings, the age of children involved in the sharing of sexually explicit content is becoming lower and lower.
While apps such as SafeToNet are a helpful addition to the technological landscape, we cannot rely on these types of tools alone. A multifaceted approach to this problem is required. While apps that help prevent explicit content from being shared by children in the first place certainly assist on a practical level, we must also address the social and cultural environment that is encouraging these images to be taken in the first place.
If children as young as six are being exposed to such scenarios, we need to carefully consider how best we can prepare them to deal with this type of situation and, ultimately, stop it from becoming commonplace. Clearly, we need to change our approach and tackle the topic with better education and greater transparency.
We must not be naïve. We have to accept that this kind of activity is occurring, and that very young children are involved. If they have access to the devices and technology, then the threat is always present. Even when we activate tools to try and make online communication as safe as possible, we must never assume that the environment is entirely protected.
Some may argue that children as young as six should not have access to a mobile phone or the internet. But we are living in a digital age and technology is an integral part of our society. Parents are using different types of devices at home, children are taught technology at school and older siblings rely on social networks outside of the educational setting. Rather than blocking access to the devices, we need to instil a sensible and responsible approach to using technology from an early age and teach young people how to behave online.
Education and parenting both play important supplementary roles here and will help to guide young people through the perils of online communication. As adults, we have the power to improve the current culture by being proactive and openly discussing these issues during our children’s developmental years. In order to do so, parents need to become as knowledgeable as possible about the subjects of sexting and cyberbullying so that we can talk to our children in the most appropriate way and provide a supportive environment.
No matter how difficult the conversation, it is futile to ignore the subject matter and assume that young people are always shielded from explicit content - evidently this is not the case. We cannot shy away from discussing it with our children.
We are living in a world where influencers, with millions of followers - many of them impressionable young women - post 'sexy' selfies in their underwear and have normalised such behaviour. Never has it been more important to expose young girls to a wide range of positive role models and to help them identify with successful figureheads in the worlds of business, sport, media and charity, as well as celebrities. There is so much opportunity for young women to succeed in a wide range of industries today and we need to harness these prospects, make sure girls can see the bigger picture, and not feel trapped in a social media popularity contest where the more provocative the picture, the more ‘likes’.
Whether it is sexting or cyberbullying, problems that arise from online communication rarely have a purely technological-based solution. The human element is vital and steering young women and children safely through the hazards of the digital age is a challenge that requires a lot of adult guidance.
We cannot stop the issues such as sexting from cropping up, but we can equip children with the right knowledge and skills to deal with it. The earlier we tackle them, the sooner we create a safer online experience.