Today is Safer Internet Day, but do any of us actually know what Britain's youth are getting up to online?
This week, West Mercia Police revealed it investigated a staggering 74 cases involving children sexting last year alone.
But the region is no anomaly; young people are sending salacious messages and images to each other all over the UK. In fact, over 1,200 ChildLine counseling sessions that specifically mentioned “sexting” were recorded between 2014 and 2015.
“Most young people do not see ‘sexting’ as a problem and are reluctant to talk to adults about it because they are afraid of being judged or having their phones taken away,” the NSPCC explains. “Sending pictures and inappropriate content has become normal teenage behaviour.”
What’s more, a 2015 study by Knowthenet revealed 43% of 12-year-olds admitted to messaging complete strangers – some as young as five, according to Intel Security. The KTN study also suggested that 13 is the age when children are most likely to try sexting for the first time.
“What you do online stays online, and it can be on the internet forever,” says Tony Anscombe, Online Safety Expert at security firm AVG, speaking to TrustedReviews.
“People act quickly and do something that may not be appropriate at that moment in time, and actually just pausing for a few seconds and thinking might stop somebody from doing something,” he tells us.
In response to the growing “sexting” crisis, AVG has launched a new campaign called #tk6 that encourages teens to “take six seconds” before posting something online that they may later regret.
“Snapchat proves that there is a want from that audience for content not to live on. However, as you and I both know, you can screenshot something somebody sends you,” Anscombe continues.
According to Anscombe, the solution is simply to talk to your kids about what they do online, but it won’t be an easy conversation, he says.
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“I think it’s probably more challenging than having the birds and the bees conversation, because having the birds and the bees is a little about about science I suppose, whereas sexting is personal,” he explains. “It’s talking directly about something you may do, or something your friends may be doing. It’s an awkward conversation, but it’s a conversation parents need to have.”
He also says that schools need to play an active role in mitigating cyberbullying and sexting, but that teachers need specific training on how to approach the topic with children.
“One of the challenging things is the training of teachers,” Anscombe tells us. “Teachers are not IT specialists typically.”
Another issue is that 88% of 10-12 year olds have at least one smart device right now, which means a huge proportion of British children are at risk online.
But not all teenagers who warrant concern are victims, at least in the traditional sense anyway. The world wide web is brimming with cyber-criminals trying to balance a life of theft and fraud with their GCSEs and A-levels.
In fact, the National Crime Agency recently revealed the average age of a cyber-criminal is now just 17 years old.
“Rebellion, curiosity, and an urge to demonstrate their independence are natural characteristics of the 16 to 19 age group,” says Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Consumer and Business Psychologist at University College London.
He continues: “As the first truly digital native generation, rebelling has simply become another aspect of their lives that can go digital.”
According to Tsivrikos, cyber-crime has become “glamourised in society”, and represents “an attack on the system”.
He says it’s the perfect way for teens to express their “angst” and achieve social validation.
After all, many teenagers are impressed by their friends’ dodgy antics. According to a recent survey by security firm Kaspersky, 35% of teenagers would be impressed if a friend hacked a bank’s website and replaced the homepage with a cartoon.
Hacking is seen as a feat of strength in the digital age; an age where teens “struggle to identify their place within society”, Tsivrikos says.
But the problem is two-fold; not only the dark side of the web a tempting prospect, but it’s also very easy to access.
Research released this week by Kaspersky reveals that 12% of kids are aware of someone who has undertaken a cyber-activity that "could be deemed illegal".
What’s more, over a quarter of UK teenagers know how to hide their IP address, a core skill for any would-be cyber-criminal.
“It’s frighteningly easy for teenagers to find their way into the dark corners of the internet today. Specialist browsers required to gain access are freely available online and discussion groups used by cybercriminals are often open to outsiders,” says David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.
He continues: “Young people exploring, experimenting or taking their first steps towards making some easy money online can all too easily end up here in search of tools and advice.”
“It’s far harder to get out than it is to get in,” Emm adds.
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Who do you think needs to take more responsibility for children online – parents, schools, internet companies, or teens themselves? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.