A new report today has suggested that Irish secondary school students are 30% more likely to engage in sexting when they reach senior cycle (5th-6th year) compared to when they first enter junior cycle (1st-3rd year). The report which was conducted by Zeeko an Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up (HPSU), headquartered at NovaUCD. Zeeko works with parents, teachers and children to promote digital health and internet safety among primary and secondary school children.surveyed over 3,200 secondary school students from 30 schools. The Secondary School Digital Trend Report is aimed at better understanding the current digital trends among teenagers in Ireland.

Sexting is the act of exchanging sexually explicit content online in the form of images, videos and text and has become a prominent feature of Irish adolescents’ communication in recent years. Sexting ranges from sending suggestive messages to images and videos. There is currently no law governing sexting but possession of explicit images of a person under the age of 18 could be considered possession of child pornography, which if convicted could see the person spend up to 5 years in prison.

The report showed just 4% of 1st Years have sent a sext image compared to 34% of 6th Years. Overall, 13% of student have sent a nude or semi nude photo or video of themselves to someone while 15% of students have shared or showed a friend a nude or semi-nude photo or video that was sent by someone else. Males are more likely to sext with 17% having sent a nude or semi-nude photo or video of themselves compared to 9% of females.

The study also looked at the social media habits of secondary school students. The most popular social media site is Snapchat followed by Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Gender differences play a significant role in socializing online. Results show that social media is more popular among females with 85% preferring Snapchat compared to 57% of males, while 63% chose Instagram compared to 25% of males.  Males prefer games over social media with 62% going online using a games console compared to 14% of females.

Secondary school students are increasingly more likely to engage with and meet strangers as they get older with 32% of 1st Years have spoke to strangers online compared to 70% of 6th Years. 8% of 1st Years have met strangers physically compared to 38% of 6th Years. The results also show that students do take online risks seriously with 76% of students considering posts, photos and videos they put online as being something serious or very serious.

The percentages of cyberbullying experiences have not changed over the last few years. In secondary schools 20% of students are victims of cyberbullying. However, the percentage of children who have witnessed cyberbullying is around the 40%. In general, younger children and adolescents consider cyberbullying as a very serious issue, 83% of 1st Years compared to 71% of 6th Years. Female adolescents are twice as likely to be victims of cyberbullying – 22% of females vs. 11% of males. Male adolescents experiment with sexuality and engage with strangers more than their female peers. Males are less likely to identify social aggression as bullying in both online and offline contexts.

Dr Marina Everri, (pictured) a social psychologist from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Head of Research, Zeeko said, “We observed a progressive increase in sexting throughout secondary schools. This should not be considered as an alarming result, rather it should be interpreted considering adolescents’ developmental tasks and needs. Adolescence is a crucial phase in defining gender identity and sexual orientation.  Adolescents explore sexuality, they are eager to meet peers and partners and establish romantic relationships.”

“Texting, sharing videos and photos, encounters with strangers and looking for strangers online to meet offline respond to adolescents’ need to expand their social network outside of their families. However, there is a need for education programmes that teach adolescents how to critically assess the content and potential risks associated with sexting”, she concluded.

Rachel O’Neill – Editor