A new study of Australian teenagers by the CSIRO has found that nearly half of all senior secondary students have received a sexually-explicit image via text message.
The study, published this week in the journal Sexual Health, found while a quarter of the Year 10, 11 and 12 students surveyed had sent a sexually explicit photo of themselves to someone else, about 42% had received a sexually explicit image.
Just over half had received a written "sext" and 43% said they had sent one.
The study of more than 2,100 students revealed how entrenched "sexting" has become among teens.
While such activity might seem harmless to students, many fail to recognise the legal ramifications that can be involved.
Susan McLean, director of Cyber Safety Solutions told The Educator that students were often not aware of most of the laws regarding abuse of any type online, adding “comprehensive education” for schools and students was paramount.
“Parents need to know what they children are doing, where they are going and what apps/sites they are using. Schools need to be up to date with these apps so that they can identify when they are being used,” she said.
McLean added that like exchanging sexually explicit photos, cyberbullying was also a common practice that could have legal consequences for students.
“They don¹t understand that cyberbullying is a crime and most have no idea that if they take and send, or have in their possession, a naked pic of themselves or another teen then they potentially can face serious criminal charges,” she said.
“Victoria has recently changed their child pornography laws so that young people are treated in a different way if found with these pics now, but in every other state and territory they risk child pornography charges.”
So in what ways can schools adapt to these hi-tech challenges and ensure that they are ahead of the curve in combating covert technologies like these in classrooms?
According to McLean, schools need thorough professional development provided by experts in the field.
“They [schools] need to understand their legal duty of care and also have in place robust policy to guide them to both prevent and deal with online issues,” she said.
“It amazes me that still some schools have no policy to cover this.”
However, some sexual health experts say the practice is simply young people finding new ways to express sexual interests and feelings, and as long as they behave ethically parents need not feel overly concerned.
Megan Lim, head of sexual health and young people research at the Burnet Institute, told The Sydney Morning Herald that young people often view sexting quite differently from the way older people and the media portray it.
"They really don't think it is as big a deal as it is portrayed in the media," she said.
"They see it as a normal part of dating and getting to know someone - I guess flirting is kind of the best way to describe it."