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The Billboard Test

Sexting: it's time to tell the kids about this test, writes Carolyn Bunting of Internet Matters.

Internet Matters is a not-for-profit organisation that deals with child safety online. It’s something it deals with day in, day out. Carolyn Bunting, General Manager at Internet Matters writes about the sensitive issue of sexting.

If there is one message I could get across to parents it would be to encourage them to have frank conversations with their children.

It’s a statistic that would shock any parent. This month it was reported children as young as six have been questioned by police over ‘sexting’ - sending indecent or intimate images to each other on smartphones or tablets. It came just weeks after it emerged a 14-year-old boy had been arrested for sending indecent images to a classmate through the image-sharing app Snapchat. The National Crime Agency say they are now dealing with a case of ‘sexting’ every day and over a thousand under-18s have already been investigated for sending nude or explicit images.

While these are obviously varied cases, the issues surrounding what children and young people are sending, receiving, sharing and viewing online are clearly more prevalent than ever.

The term ‘sexting’ is used to describe the sending and receiving of sexually explicit photos, messages and video clips, by text, email or through social networking sites and apps. When children engage in ‘sexting’, they’re creating an indecent image of a person under 18. But what many don’t know is that creating and distributing images like this is already against the law.

Exploring sex and relationships is part of growing up. But while sharing intimate images could be argued to be part of this process, it’s the longer-term consequences of who else is sharing these images that children have no control over.

Apps like SnapChat now boast over 100m users worldwide - with 70 per cent girls and more than half aged 13-17. Users are now posting up to 700million photos and videos every day. Snapchat’s USP is that images shared on the app are ‘automatically’ deleted up to ten seconds after they’ve been viewed. But it also doesn’t resolve the issue about who can still view the images after the time limit’s run out.

Snapchat’s terms and conditions state that images are retained by the site for up to 30 days after posting. In October 2014 over 900,000 images were leaked following an attack on the server by hackers. On a smaller scale, the app’s setting also doesn’t prevent users screen-grabbing shots that can be shared with an unlimited number of friends. It goes without saying that knowing private and intimate images have been shared will cause shame and embarassment. But the humiliation surrounding unwanted image sharing can lead to bullying, humiliation, or at its most extreme, leave young people open to blackmail and has even led to suicide attempts.


Children don’t realise the potential danger they are unintentionally putting themselves in. As parents it’s our responsibility to teach them. It’s our job to ensure they’re able to understand the consequences of their actions. One simple rule of thumb we often give to parents is the ‘Billboard test’. It’s really simple - would you be happy to see the image you’re about to post on a 20ft billboard outside your school gates? If the answer to that is no, then our advice is not to send that image.

Just as in the physical world, parents need to be aware of their child’s behaviour in the digital world. I really believe that by empowering parents to be confident enough to talk to their kids about ‘sexting’, children will feel informed enough to come to the right decision before they decide to share a sexually explicit images.

Over 65% of children aged 12-15 now own a smartphone and one in four children have received an unwanted sexual image. As a parent myself, I realise that we cannot afford to be complacent about helping children navigate their digital world safely. Sexting is still a relatively new phenomenon, but one that our children are going to find unavoidable. And with our homes full of ipads, smartphones and other connected devices, there’s even more opportunity for sharing, sending and shocking at the touch of a button.


At Internet Matters, we really do recommend that parents learn about ‘sexting’, talking about it and dealing with it. There’s a really straight-forward guide on internetmatters.org, which helps parents with each of these steps.

Let’s start talking about these issues now to protect our children.

Carolyn Bunting

September 2015