Sexting & Risk Mitigation, A Need For A Paradigm Shift – It’s Time For A Challenging Discussion On A Challenging Topic! 

May 5, 2024

Having engaged with over 630,000 teens from across Canada and the US, the subject of sharing intimate images, commonly known as “sexting” among adults and legally termed “distribution of intimate images” in Canada, remains a pressing concern for parents, caregivers, educators, and teenagers.(1) 

It’s worth mentioning that teens don’t refer to it as “sexting,” which is a term associated with older generations or what the kids like to call “Boomers”. Instead, teens commonly use terms like “nudes,” “dick pics,” “meat shots,” or “nutters” to describe this behavior. While the concept of nudes isn’t new — art history attests to their presence for centuries — the modern twist lies in the ease with which teens today can create and circulate their own intimate image through technology.

In many schools that we present at, the predominant approach to educating young people about sexting has traditionally been abstinence-based, grounded in fear tactics like threats of arrest for engaging in such behavior, or that if they do engage in such behaviour bad things will always happen. However, research suggests that this abstinence-based approach is ineffective. (2)(3) Instead, we advocate for a more nuanced, evidence-based educational strategy that acknowledges the complexities of teen sexuality in today’s onlife world. (4)(5)(6) Ignoring the possibility of sexting due to its legality is akin to ignoring the reality of underage sexual activity, adolescent drinking, vaping, and drug use. We don’t deny these behaviors exist; instead, we focus on educating to mitigate risks if youth engage with these types of behaviours – so why not do this with the topic of sexting as well?

One major challenge with the abstinence-based approach is its heavy emphasis on the legal consequences of sexting, which can discourage teens from seeking help if their intimate images are shared without consent. We have clearly heard form teens that they are reluctant to involve authorities out of fear of legal repercussions (self-arrest), or to parents and caregiver out of fear of their punishment (taking their devices). Moreover, the nuances of Canadian law regarding sexting are often misunderstood and miscommunicated by educators, parents, caregivers and even some in law enforcement to youth, further complicating the issue. This is why we have created a specific program for parents, caregivers, and educators on what the Canadian law actually says on this issue. (7)

We argue for a shift away from the punitive and fear-driven messaging of abstinence surrounding sexting, toward a more age-appropriate holistic approach that combines education, prevention, risk mitigation, and consent on this issue. Recognizing that human intimacy is evolving in today’s onlife world, we must meet teens where they are, offering support and guidance without judgment – there needs to be a paradigm shift!

Sexting isn’t solely about exchanging images; it also encompasses issues of consent, trust, and relationship dynamics as well.(8) We also believe that rather than focusing solely on those who consensually share intimate images, attention should primarily be directed towards those who misuse such images, refraining from shaming and victim-blaming. Bystanders who receive or witness the sharing of intimate images also need to be empowered to intervene and report such behavior.

Admittedly, we previously endorsed an abstinence-based approach. However, our experience over the past thirteen years of working with teens, and the new evidence-based research on this issue, has led us to adopt a hybrid model that incorporates elements of risk mitigation. While we continue to stress the importance of not sharing intimate images, we must also provide practical advice for minimizing harm if teens choose to do so – which for some is their reality.

When we initially introduced this strategy for mitigating risks in sexting several years ago, skeptics criticized our teachings, accusing us of enabling young people to participate in such online activities. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! This risk mitigation framework includes steps such as ensuring anonymity in images, avoiding identifiable features, and employing technological safeguards to prevent unauthorized access or distribution. Additionally, we advocate for legal and social measures to hold perpetrators accountable for non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

So, what is our risk mitigation approach to educating teens:

#1: Don’t do it, remember sometimes nudes sent may get posted publicly. However, if you are one of the few teens who will not heed this first and most important rule then,

#2: Make sure your face is not in the picture. This will help provide deniability if the picture becomes public – much easier to say, “That’s not me.”

#3: Make sure there are no scars, tattoos, birthmarks, or jewelry in the pictures that are specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#4: Make sure that there is no identifiable clothing, like a school shirt, that is visible and/or is specific to you. Again, this helps to provide deniability if the picture becomes public.

#5: Make sure the background is neutral and not taken in your bedroom or your bathroom that can be identified back to you.

#6: Turn off the automatic backup of photos on your device so that pictures are not uploaded to a file or the cloud. You want to prevent external access by others.

#7: Scrub all meta-data from the picture, such as the longitude and latitude of where the picture was taken or the type of device used to take the picture. This helps to protect the location of where you live.

#8: Lock your device and any file apps so that others who may access your phone will not have the ability to access any pictures on your device that they could copy/forward to others.

#9: Make sure your “Find My Device” application on your phone is turned on. If you have forgotten to lock your phone and you have misplaced or lost it, you can now remotely wipe any pictures that are on the phone.

#10: Use a translucent watermark of the name of the person that you are sending the nude to and hide it in the picture so that it is not visible. There are several free apps on the market that will allow you to do this such as “PS Express”. By taking this step, if the person you sent the picture to now sends this picture to others without your permission, there is a covert digital bread crumb that will help the police to prove that the suspect distributed the picture.

#11: Make sure that you attach a message to the picture that says, “Not to Be Shared”. Here in Canada, this will help police with proving the offence of “Non-Consensual Distribution of An Intimate Image” if the receiver does send it to others outside of a relationship without your consent.

#12: Play copyrighted music in the background of any intimate videos sent.  Given that many (not all) popular social media sights are now using algorithms that do not allow videos that have embedded copyrighted music from being posted, it helps to reduce the risk of a video going viral on their platforms.

#13: Do not engage in any kind of sexting behaviour with someone who you just met online. The chances of “sextortion” increase dramatically in these types of cases.

We acknowledge that not all parents or caregivers may agree with our risk mitigation approach, but we believe it’s essential to adapt to the realities of today’s onlife world to protect teens from harm. By offering relevant, age-appropriate evidence-based guidance, we aim to empower teens to make informed decisions about sexting while minimizing potential risks. While there’s no such thing as completely safe sexting, we can work towards making it safer if a teen does decide to engage in this type of behaviour through education and support.

This approach aligns with current academic research, which emphasizes the importance of comprehensive, contextually relevant education over simplistic abstinence-based messaging. (9) By addressing sexting within the broader context of consent and digital intimacy and providing practical strategies for risk reduction, we aim to equip teens with the tools they need to navigate this aspect of their lives to make informed decisions responsibly.

Our recommendations draw on evidence and best practices from various academic fields, including psychology, criminology, education, and more importantly from youth themselves. By combining these insights into a cohesive framework, we hope to foster a more nuanced understanding of sexting and its implications among both teenagers and the adults who support them.

Our risk mitigation approach recognizes that effective prevention and response efforts require collaboration across multiple sectors, including law enforcement, education, child welfare, and family cohorts. Educating stakeholders about the complexities of sexting and promoting coordinated responses to incidents can help ensure that teens receive the support and protection they need if things go bad.

Ultimately, our goal is to promote healthy, respectful teen relationships and empower young people to make informed choices about their digital interactions. By engaging with teens on their own terms and providing them with practical guidance, we believe we can help mitigate the risks associated with sexting, while promoting positive outcomes for all involved.

In essence, our approach seeks to bridge the gap between the reality of teen behavior in today’s onlife world and the need for effective risk management strategies. We recognize that simply advocating for abstinence or emphasizing the legal consequences of sexting is insufficient in addressing the multifaceted nature of this growing concern. 

Instead, we advocate for a balanced approach that acknowledges the complexities of teen sexuality and technology use in today’s onlife world that they interact with. By combining education on consent, trust, and healthy relationships with practical risk mitigation strategies, we aim to empower teens to make responsible decisions about sexting while mitigating potential negative consequences.

We need to emphasize the importance of addressing the broader societal issues surrounding sexting, including gender dynamics, power imbalances, and the normalization of digital intimacy. By fostering open and honest conversations about these issues, we can create a teen culture that values respect, consent, and privacy in all forms of communication.

Our approach to addressing sexting reflects a commitment to promoting the well-being and safety of teens in today’s onlife world. By providing evidence-based education and support, we can help young people navigate the complexities of sexting while promoting healthy relationships and respectful behavior online.

Our commitment to risk mitigation also extends beyond merely addressing the immediate risks associated with sexting. We recognize that building a culture of digital literacy and responsibility requires ongoing effort and collaboration across various sectors of society.

We advocate for comprehensive sex education that includes discussions on digital intimacy, consent, and healthy relationships from an early age and that are age appropriate. By integrating these topics into school curricula and community programs, we can equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the digital landscape safely and responsibly.

We emphasize the importance of ongoing research and evaluation to inform our approach and ensure its effectiveness. By staying abreast of emerging trends and best practices, we can continually refine our strategies to better meet the needs of today’s youth.

Ultimately, our goal is to create a supportive environment in which teens feel empowered to make informed decisions about their onlife world – especially when it comes to sending intimate images – sexting. By fostering a culture of trust, respect, and open communication, we can help young people thrive in an increasingly connected world while mitigating the risks associated with sexting and other forms of digital interaction.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter











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