When encouraging kids to practice safe behaviors, whether on or offline, the most effective approach depends on a variety of factors, such as kids’ priorities and motivations, current norms, as well as the current practices recommended by experts.
With time, we as a society learned that “stranger danger” poses less of a risk to children than does danger and maltreatment from people they know and trust, and we continue to adjust our messaging accordingly.
When it comes to sharing explicit images online, dominant practice has been to emphasize to kids that anything they share online can become “public and permanent” and therefore they should behave as if it will. This is not bad advice, but it first arose in a pre-social media, pre-mobile device environment. With the advent of smartphones and non-stop connectivity, the ease and frequency of sharing private content has increased dramatically, as has the likelihood that a private image will then be non-consensually shared with others or posted online.
Given how often kids are sharing images and having those images non-consensually spread further, some experts are questioning if “public and permanent” is still the best framing. When a child – who through typical adolescent lapses in judgement may have engaged in sharing an image of themselves – is told that those images are public and permanent, it may simply be add to the shame, despair, and fear they could already feel toward the situation. In reality, there are often actions to be taken to prevent or minimize the spread of explicit images, but kids may be less likely to pursue that help if they have been presented with a black-and-white version of online risk and safety, or fear punishment for seeking help.
Ultimately, we need laws, language, and education that better acknowledge the complex range of experiences that fall within “sexting” and online risky behavior. When we recognize and speak to these different circumstances, we are better able to emphasize the danger of “public and permanent” without that becoming a disempowering idea to those kids who have already experienced coercion or the betrayal of having images shared non-consensually.