The sharing of suggestive images is now common practice in Australian schools. 

A recent report from the Office of the eSafety Commissioner estimates that nearly one-in-three young people aged 14-17 years had some experience with sexting in the 12 months to June 2017, whether it was sending, being asked to send, or asking to send nude, or nearly nude, images or videos.

But impossible for many teenagers to contemplate are the long-term repercussions one split-second decision can have throughout their remaining school years, and even into adulthood.

“You have very little hope that a 13-year-old would have thought through the consequences of [sending a nude photograph],” O’Shea says.

“...and the idea that whoever they’ve sent it to might actually pass it on to someone else just doesn’t cross their mind.”

Cautionary tales like that of Noelle Martin, who was just 17 years old when predators appropriated a “selfie” she posted on her Facebook feed and distributed it over porn websites, are not uncommon.

Now 22, Martin is still fighting to have the images taken down and has received a number of threats of blackmail along the way. 

But, as O’Shea knows all too well, cautionary tales are simply not enough to get students to think twice, or even thrice, before sending a sext.

“There’d be hardly a school that wouldn’t be doing something at some level about this issue. But they all face the same challenge of making the message different – making it interesting and palatable and at a level that kids will understand.”

“Schools have to put elements of positivity and creativity into it,” O’Shea says.

“And you can’t do the same program every year or kids just roll their eyes.”

Seeking a fresh approach, the deputy principal volunteered his Ballarat school to be the first in Australia to trial new ‘sexting’ course about the dangers of image-based bullying, developed by partners the Alannah & Madeline and Supré foundations.

It’s part of Loreto’s wellbeing plan, of which online abuse is just one element.

The course investigates the issue of image-based abuse and the consequences of sexting through role-plays and open forum discussions.

Workshop coordinator Judi Fallon says the workshops aren’t about passing judgement, but starting a conversation, with the ultimate aim of helping students to make informed choices. 

“I’m not up there telling them what they should and shouldn’t do. And I certainly make that really clear.

“I do make sure they know what the law is – and, of course, the law is different in every state. But it really comes down to ... [ensuring that] the values that we have offline are the same values that we should be having online.”

Fallon says the workshops also include a focus on the fallout from image-based abuse.

“It’s about the big picture of making sure we have good conversations, making sure we make good decisions, but also the fact that there shouldn’t be victim blaming here. How do we make sure these young people are supported and know where to go for help?”

The course is set to be conducted in schools around the nation, and across all sectors.

But while schools might be an important site for a discussion around image-based abuse, Fallon wants to see greater involvement from the rest of our society, including parents.

“There are parents who say to me, ‘look, I haven’t got a clue what my kids are doing online. They just go into their bedrooms, close the door and do whatever they do’.”

“We have to know what our kids are doing. We don’t have to be looking over their shoulder on a 24 hour basis; we’ve got to trust them. But we’ve got to be having those conversations about what they are doing.”