'Sexting', the act of texting sexually explicit messages and photographs, has become increasingly popular and is now the norm amongst teenagers. Most teenagers own a smart phone and even the cheapest have cameras connected to the internet.
A 'sext' meant only for one person, a boyfriend or girlfriend, can be forwarded at the touch of a button to others out of a desire to show off or seek revenge when a relationship ends. More worrying still, sexting is often the result of peer pressure. Jonathan Baggaley, head of education at the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre (COEP), has spoken of cases where children have been blackmailed into sending further photographs through fear that the recipient will publish those already sent and forward them to friends and family. Sadly, for whatever reason, the images rarely remain exclusively with the receiving party.
A recent survey by the NSPCC and ChildLine, albeit of only 450 teenagers, has revealed that 60% teenagers have been asked to take and send sexual images, 25% have done so and a frightening 15% have sent sexually explicit material to a complete stranger.
A study by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) last year, revealed that a staggering 88% of sexual or suggestive images or videos originally posted on social networking sites or sent via text message end up on 'parasite' websites. The moment that an image is posted on the internet, or shared via text message, it is vulnerable to being copied by others and widely disseminated. Even with new software, such as 'Snapchat' or 'Poke' (where the photograph deletes itself after a few seconds), the image can be captured by making a screenshot or taking a photograph of the screen, using another device, before it disappears.
Losing control of sexually explicit images exposes young people to more than mere embarrassment; it can lead to bullying, damage to future job prospects and has led to suicides.
Schools are becoming more alive to the problem and are issuing specific guidance to teachers on how to deal with sexting. Teachers are being advised to confiscate and search mobile phones that they suspect may contain indecent or compromising photographs and inform parents if necessary. From 2014 guidance on staying safe online will be added to the school IT curriculum.
But what can parents do to help their son or daughter in these circumstances? The publication and dissemination of sexually explicit images is likely to fall foul of a website's terms and conditions; and copyright, privacy and harassment laws, as well as the Communications Act 2003.
The main problem is the speed with which the images become viral and it is often difficult to establish the full extent of the online dissemination. Google 'search by image' is a useful tool which can be used to track where on the internet a particular photograph appears.
Often sexually explicit images will be criminal in nature - for example, intimate photographs of children under 18. In these circumstances if the IWF is put on notice by the victim it will notify the relevant police agency to investigate the content and it will contact the hosting provider to remove it.
Whilst it is a serious criminal offence to take, hold or share sexually explicit photos of anyone under the age of 18, Newsnight was told by the Association of Chief Police Officers on 16 October 2013 that it would be highly unlikely that children would be prosecuted for sexting.
By using a combination of existing civil and criminal laws it should be possible to secure the removal of intimate images from the internet fairly quickly. However, the speed at which content can spread means that the damage may already be done. Young people must be encouraged to take care when using social media and think very carefully about the potential consequences of this new craze of 'sexting'.