Sexting is when people share sexual texts or images of themselves on their phone, online or through apps. This is commonly done using text messaging.
In addition to text messages, there are a number of apps people use like Tinder, Bumble and Grindr, as well as private messaging apps such as Snapchat and WhatsApp. These apps are sometimes, but not always, used to sext.
Lots of young people sext, with most finding it fun. But there are times when intimate relationships go wrong, and sexts can be shared without someone’s knowledge or consent. This is called image-based abuse. It’s important to know that if images are shared without someone’s consent, it’s not their fault. The person who shared it is in the wrong.
See below for more information on what could happen and how you can support a young person to avoid, and deal with, having their private messages and images exposed online.
Sexting and the law
Did you know that asking for, taking, having or sharing a sexual photo or video of someone under 18 can actually be child pornography in Australia?
Even if someone only takes a sexually explicit picture of themselves or their partner, it can be illegal. It may also have serious legal consequences, which can end up affecting lots of other parts of a person’s life.
Sometimes images can end up in the wrong hands. Unfortunately, stories of ‘image-based abuse,’ are becoming a lot more common. This can also be a crime. There are different laws about image-based abuse in different states. Find out more about sexting and the law.
What is image-based abuse?
Image-based abuse is when intimate or sexual photos or videos of someone are shared online or via mobile phone without their permission. Sometimes the person isn’t even aware that the images were taken. Sometimes the person has given permission for the photo or video to be taken, but then it is shared without their consent. People may also receive unwanted sexual images – this is a type of harassment.
The images are often shared directly with others via text messages or social media, or on occasions on websites intentionally set up to humiliate people. There are a range of motivations for sharing these images – some people may do so as a prank or a joke, in an attempt to seek revenge, to force another person to perform an unwanted sexual act or to prevent them from leaving a relationship.
Threatening to share images – even if the images are never actually shared – is also a type of image-based abuse. This is called ‘sextortion’ and it can be even more distressing than having the images shared.
How common is image-based abuse?
A survey found one in five Australians have experienced image-based abuse, with females and males equally likely to experience image-based abuse. Young people aged between 16 and 29 are one of the most at-risk groups. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people living with a disability and people who identify as LGBTIQA+ are also particularly vulnerable.
How can I help?
It’s only natural that you want to protect a young person from experiencing any kind of harm, including image-based abuse. There are things that you can do to help your young person stay safe in their online relationships.
Keep communication open
Try to understand the young person’s experience of online relationships. You can do this by asking questions about who they talk to online and what sites they visit. Maintaining regular communication helps to build trust and may encourage the young person to seek your support if something harmful happens.
Set limits around access
This will mean different things for different families and for people of different ages. A common (and safe) rule is limiting technology use to common areas, not bedrooms, and also limiting access after a certain time at night. This can help you be aware of their behaviour online.
Support good decision-making
Talk about the consequences of impulsive decisions and encourage your young person to think about what they post online. For example, Snapchat can influence hasty decisions because the app allows images to be sent and then automatically deleted after a certain amount of time. This does not prevent a screenshot being taken and shared. It’s important that young people practise slowing down and thinking through their decisions.
Foster self-respect and respect for others
By modelling respectful behaviours and attitudes, you can help a young person identify what’s OK and what’s not OK.
Encourage the young person to challenge image-based abuse
It’s important that young people feel empowered to be ‘upstanders’ rather than ‘bystanders’ and say something about negative online behaviour (in an assertive but not an aggressive way). Remind them to think carefully about their safety, and if they don’t think they can take action safely, encourage them to report the behaviour to a trusted adult.
If you become aware that a young person has had an intimate photo or video shared, try to remain calm. Staying calm can help keep communication open and help you to problem solve the situation together. Losing control can distress your young person even more.
Try to be supportive and reassuring. Reserve any judgements you may have, despite personal opinions or beliefs. Remember that the world of online relationships may be very different from your experiences growing up. The young person needs your care and support to get through this.
Support them to take action against the abuse
When a person’s image is shared without their permission, their control is taken away from them. Help your young person to take back some control. Assist them to take practical steps to address the abuse. You might also want to speak with the young person about contacting their school or workplace. This will ensure they have support around them and can help to identify any concerning behaviours, such as shaming or bullying.
Help the young person to stay connected to supportive friends and family, both offline and online. Being involved in meaningful and enjoyable friendships may help the young person to maintain their sense of self-worth and esteem.
Understanding the experience of people who have encountered image-based abuse may help you to both empathise with their experience and provide more meaningful support. More information about common reactions to image-based abuse can be found at Secasa.
For more information, visit eheadspace for online and telephone support or find your nearest headspace centre.
eSafety Commissioner- This is the Australian eSafety regulatory body. The website has lots of great resources on sexting and image-based abuse. They can help with image-based abuse, cyberbullying, complaints about explicit or illegal content online and other safety issues online
ThinkUKnow - ThinkUKnow provides information and resources on a range of topics, including sexting, cyberbullying and online privacy, for young people and families.
- Understanding bullying – for family and friends
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 24 January 2023