Under the radar of parents and teachers, more and more Australian teenagers are using their mobile phones to take nude or semi-nude photos of themselves before sending them to friends.
Cyber experts say the practice of sexting has become normalised behaviour and that parents, schools and police are struggling to deal with the social and legal consequences.
In some cases, children who have distributed nude pictures of themselves have been charged with child pornography offences.
Susan McLean, a former police officer turned cyber safety expert, says she has never been into a secondary school in Australia that has not had an issue with sexting.
“When I started working in this area, the only time there were pictures out there of young people in cyberspace that were naked or sexually explicit were as a result of coercion… so a girl being tricked into sending the picture,” she said.
“But what we’re seeing now of course is young girls taking these photos of themselves, of themselves and their boyfriend and sending them off into cyberspace.”
What might seem like mischief between flirtatious teenagers can be disastrous.
Teen suicides in the United States have been linked to sexting.
Robyn Treyvaud, an internet safety advocate and founder of Cybersafe World, says Australian parents and schools are struggling to cope with the ramifications of sexting.
“Often a parent might go up to the school and the expectation is that the school can do something about it,” she said.
“Schools are in a really difficult position because where does duty of care begin and end? Often a school’s first response is to go to the police, and then of course the situation escalates very quickly and there’s no pulling back from it once that’s started.”
Australian teenagers have gone before the Children’s Court charged with child pornography offences and it is understood some have been listed on the sex offenders’ register.
Ms McLean says the legal consequences are profound but not well understood by young people.
“I have plenty of young people say to me, ‘oh, but I’m cool with that; I’m happy for my boyfriend to have a naked picture of me on his phone’.
“If a person takes that photo of a 15-year-old girl, of herself naked, sends it on to her boyfriend or whoever, she can be charged with manufacture of child pornography, possessing child pornography and transmitting child pornography.”
The Federal Government has introduced laws on sex tourism and online offences.
But the new laws, which come into effect on Thursday, are not aimed at interactions like sexting between young people.
Ms Treyvaud argues the laws have not kept pace with the technology.
“The legislation as it exists right now is not appropriate for what’s happening and there certainly needs to be some law reform,” she said.
“A lot of the legislation certainly around this type of offence had never taken in consideration the fact that in the 21st century, kids would have mobile phones that can take images and transmit them very rapidly both to other phones and also to the internet.”
But Ms McLean says any legislative change could present a new set of problems.
“What you don’t want is paedophiles being able to use the loophole that you may have created a law for sexting and they go, ‘oh yeah, but it’s just sexting’,” she said.
“We need to have something in place for the person that just makes this terrible error of judgment; they willingly take the photo because for whatever reason they think it’s okay, they send it off and it all goes pear shaped.
“It may be that photos taken of yourself, by yourself don’t fit into the legislation, but I think a lot of work is going to have to be done in this area because the last thing you want is people that really do need to be charged with offences being able to get off because of a technicality.”
Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor issued a statement saying there may be instances where young people send sexually explicit images of themselves or others for malicious and exploitative reasons and that the new laws do not exclude young people from possible prosecution.