Too many young people see sharing intimate photos as a ‘normal’ part of being a teenager, and don't realise how serious the consequences can be until it's too late. Ruby, one of the members of the Natterhub team, shares this traumatic story of her own experiences as a teenager.
This is harder to write about than I initially thought, but here goes. I’m in my late 20’s, and I was lucky in that I grew up during the birth of a new digital age, like so many of you out there.
That’s why I know what happened to me has affected more people than we realise - both women and men - and it’s something we need to discuss openly.
When I was a teenager, I had to navigate the digital world without proper guidance, because guidance didn’t exist. After school, I spent most of my time online. I was constantly speaking to friends through MSN, MySpace, Bebo and other forums; discussing everything from music to pop culture and how amazing Blockbuster was (I was the typical 90s kid).
I had my first boyfriend around the age of 15: Tom. He was the type of person that could look at me and I’d blush. He was complimentary, bought me thoughtful gifts and made me smile. Being a teenage girl, that’s all I really wanted: someone that I enjoyed spending time with. When we were together, it was great. When we were apart, I thought the world was going to end (yes, 15 year olds are pretty melodramatic when they want to be). It was my ideal relationship at the time.
When you’re a teenager, the feeling of being in a relationship is intoxicating and addictive. Everything is new and exciting, and somehow the world seems brighter. But that novelty also has a weird habit of clouding your judgement. You don’t really know the potential consequences of your actions until after the fact.
During one of our hour-long phone calls he asked me to send him a picture of myself wearing not that much. Previously, this was a strictly PG relationship. To convince me, he used lines like “you’re beautiful”, and “I just want a picture of my girlfriend on my phone”. I fell for it and began to even justify it to myself, before sending it across.
What followed was not something any teenager anticipates. I went to school the next day, and everyone was staring and scowling at me. Some were giggling to each other, but nobody said a word in my direction. I wasn’t one of the most popular girls in school before that day, but I got on pretty well with most people. So this was unusual. I asked a friend why everyone was acting strange.
“You should know…” she said, “you took the picture yourself”. It took me a while to find out that Tom had sent that pixely picture to a friend, who forwarded it to someone else in the school and began the chain reaction. It may have been blurry because of the phone quality in those days, but there was no mistaking that it was me.
My heart sank.
Feelings of embarrassment and shame coursed through my veins and in that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. Tom and I ran into each other in the hallway and I ran in the other direction.
“I promise, I just sent it to Jack”, he told me. “I didn’t mean for the whole school to see it. I'm sorry.”
They were just a few of his excuses but at the time, it just sounded like a lot of noise. Can an apology really fix the situation? To this day, I don’t know what he had hoped to gain from sending that picture to his friend.
Over the next few months, I retreated into my shell and didn’t speak to anyone (not that they would really speak to me now anyway). I went to classes, didn’t put my hand up to answer questions, sat in the corner and did the bare minimum. At break times I found comfort in music and books, away from everyone else.
It took months for friends to realise that I didn’t do anything wrong, and a little while longer until they started speaking to me again. Isn’t it completely daft that when you’re the victim of something like this, you’re blamed as if it’s your fault that it happened?
Victims of situations like this face entirely different consequences to the perpetrators. Tom and his friend’s reputations remained unblemished, but I was stuck with some ugly and cruel labels. Phrases that still make me recoil today.
Now, you may not have been through exactly the same situation but I’m sure some of you can relate. Trust me when I say there are lots of landmines to dodge online. It has always been difficult for adults to provide children with the tools they need to deal with this kind of thing, and there is a severe lack of guidance.
At just 15, I made a life-altering mistake because I didn’t have anyone to teach me what to do - and what NOT to do. At 15, I didn’t understand that victims face different consequences to offenders. I don’t think any child deserves to feel this way, or feel this alone.
There are many reasons why children feel the need to send explicit images online, and they don’t usually question what can happen if they do. As adults, we shouldn’t be punishing them if it happens. Instead we should find out what’s compelling them to do it in the first place.
We’ve launched our #DontAskMe campaign to raise awareness of the rise in self-generated explicit content being posted online - particularly by girls aged 7-13. Unfortunately, many teenagers see this as a ‘normal’ part of growing up. We want to change that. To learn more about sexting, or get advice on how to talk about it with children, download our resource pack.