- A form of digital sexual harassment?
Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
"Can you crawl through my window? I will do whatever you want. I want it to be first-class. First-class hotel, champagne and good sex." These words appeared in a text message sent from the 51-year-old Martin Careen, a teacher at a private Catholic school, to one of his 17-year-old female learners in 2009. More sexually explicit messages followed over a two-day period. Fortunately for this teenager, it had to stop since, in 2012, Martin Careen was sentenced to 60 days' incarceration. He was also no longer permitted to teach (Hopes, 2012). This incident makes one wonder how often teachers, whom we trust with our children, are guilty of this form of abuse.
In the digital age in which we are living, teachers must continually keep up with the latest advances introduced to them by their learners. These advances often pose new challenges in classroom management and learner discipline. Sadly, some teachers misuse developments in technology and get involved in things such as sexting.
Sexting, which is a combination of the words "sex" and "texting" and which means to send lewd messages or pictures via cellphone, has gained prominence in schools in recent years. The NSPCC (Nd) defines sexting as the "exchange of sexual messages or images" and "creating, sharing and forwarding sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images" through cellphones and the Internet.
Dangers regarding sexting
Cassidy (2016) found that the majority of learners involved in sexting were aged between 13 and 16 years. However, it was found that children as young as seven years old are also involved in sexting. In one incident in the UK, a girl persuaded a boy to take a picture of his genitals and send it to her - she then shared the image with other learners. Teachers have also reported incidents of learners filming themselves masturbating.
Unfortunately, children who get involved in sexting do not know the dangers inherent in their actions. Apart from exposing themselves to bullying, when images are shared, it could make them targets for sex offenders. Furthermore, it can have a significant impact on a learner's emotional well-being and sometimes the impact could be absolutely devastating. The effects could include the following:
- low school attendance;
- disengagement from learning; and
- suicidal thoughts and even suicide attempts.
The case of Jessica Logan is a tragic example. She and some of her friends took nude photos of themselves while on spring break in 2008 and she chose to send hers to her boyfriend at the time. He promptly forwarded the photo to someone else, and it spread throughout her school. This led to frequent and persistent sexual harassment from her peers and she started skipping school. Jessica managed to graduate in the face of this social humiliation, but the scars ran deep. A month after her graduation, after attending a visitation for a friend who had committed suicide, Jessica Logan hanged herself in her room (Meyer, 2009). (Also refer to the shocking story of Audrie Pott who committed suicide after being the subject of sexting in Servamus: June 2017.)
Why do young people engage in sexting?
Griffin (2014) argues that there are numerous reasons why young people get involved in sexting.
Some are succumbing to pressure from a boyfriend/girlfriend or do it as a means of demonstrating commitment in a relationship - it can be viewed as a "relationship currency".
- Some are imitating famous people whom they may follow on social media, such as Twitter or Instagram.
- Some are merely showing off or trying to get attention (eg "selfies").
- Some are enticing someone or flirting.
- In some cases, the teen is being groomed by an adult.
Teaching and protecting children
Digital sexual harassment is a serious threat to teens and teachers should take the lead in addressing this issue. Hepburn (2016) argues that children should be taught about the dangers of sexting from an early age, while Espinoza (2016) adds that children as young as five years old should be taught about these dangers and be encouraged to discuss issues such as respect for their bodies.