Planned Parenthood Ottawa is holding workshops to instruct teens in safe sexting.

“If you tell youth not to do it, simply that it’s illegal, they hear, ‘don’t get caught,’ and it doesn’t help them understand the actual risks involved in sexting,” said Lauren Dobson-Hughes, president of PP Ottawa, to Maclean’s. “We would rather youth talk about consent in an age-appropriate way, throughout their lives, so they understand that sharing a picture without someone’s consent isn’t right.”

Sexting is the sending of sexually explicit messages, including pictures, electronically by mobile phone or email.

The workshop addresses the risks of sexting, but adolescents are also instructed in how to prevent themselves from being identified when sending texts, such as hiding their faces, characteristic body features, or recognizable bed sheets. Dobson-Hughes states that these tips are simply the “last line of defence.” “Youth are better served when they have a safe place to open up and tools to help them navigate these areas in a way that’s realistic,” she said.

Rachel Browne, the writer of the Maclean’s article, also interviewed 18-year-old “Andrea” from Toronto, who claims she would have benefited from such an approach. When Andrea was 14, she agreed to send a topless photo of herself to get attention from a popular boy in her class. After the boy disseminated the picture, she became a victim of bullying in her school. Andrea ultimately changed schools and started a group in the new school based on her experiences. “Sexting is just an extension of how people express themselves sexually now,” she said to Maclean’s. “But because it’s new, we haven’t developed ethical codes around it.”

Minors may be charged under Canada’s child porn laws for sexting. As of March 9, the new federal cyberbullying act (Bill C-13) will give up to five years in prison to people 12 years and older who publicize “intimate images” of someone without consent. Child porn charges could still be laid on individuals under 18 who send or obtain sexts of another minor.

The dangers of sexting are well-known. Det.-Const. Michele Bond of the Toronto Police Service warned in a press release that by sexting, minors could lead internet predators to their front doors through a geolocation setting on their mobile devices. Teens could also face harassment and emotional damage if the sext is shared with others. The individual’s future career may also be at risk if the photo is uncovered by a potential employer.

Even if the teen is not caught, engaging in the practice could be psychologically harmful, according to an article by Benjamin Fry reported in the Daily Mail. According to Fry, face-to-face interactions give rise to increased social engagement. Because sexting eliminates this relationship, people are made “competitive, ruthless, disinhibited; in short, animalistic in the pursuit of our biological needs.” As well, the teenage brain will become more dominated by adrenaline and “shut down” when under stress. Fry also states that sexting discourages monogamous relationships in the future. 

Peter Jon Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, told The Interim in an e-mail that teaching safe sexting will not guarantee that children will follow what they are taught. “Educating children and teens about the danger of sending personal or sexually explicit information and counselling them not to is as much a measure of harm reduction as anything else.” He estimates that about four out of five kids do not engage in the practice. “Many teens understand that healthy relationships don’t require taking this kind of risk.” Mitchell added, “one risk in promoting safe sexting is in backhandedly communicating that the behaviour is expected.”

Mitchell also warned that parents need to help kids understand the risks. “In addition to education, kids need to consider their own motivations. Parents need to help kids develop a healthier sense of self…what are the things they value? How do they perceive themselves? Does this behaviour line up with who they are as a person?”