The sharing of nude photos has become so common among teenagers that it's become part of the courtship process for kids as young as junior high, according to an outreach worker on P.E.I.
Jane Wood, who works for Youth Justice Services, says some boys and girls are doing it before they even hold hands.
"They're sending these pictures before they go on, say, a date with somebody," said Wood. "I would say that these pictures are being sent before they hold hands. It seems like the first thing to do."
Wood and Const. Tim Keizer, the resource officer at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown, are part of a group that gives online safety presentations in P.E.I. schools. They have have spoken with many students who have sent or received nude images through their phones.
"At the senior high level we're not seeing it to the same degree as we are at the junior high level and even in some cases in the Grade 6 level," Keizer said.
"Our young people, they're being exposed and they're getting asked questions and asked for images at a much younger age than we had previously thought."
Girls may ask boys
By Grade 9, Wood said, most kids have already seen, sent, or know someone who has seen or sent an explicit image. And it's both boys and girls who are asking for and receiving the pictures.
"I'm starting to see kind of a trend there, too, that girls are asking boys for pictures. They're sending pictures to the boys and asking for something in return."
Wood said kids have told her they are sometimes pressured into sending the photos, but many do it willingly to get a boy or girl to like them.
"They're sending pictures of their, you know, girls with no top on. Sometimes their faces are in them, sometimes they're not," she said.
They're sending pictures of their, you know, girls with no top on. Sometimes their faces are in them, sometimes they're not. — Jane Wood
"They're sending videos of their vagina and penis. Sometimes they're doing videos, you know, of them doing things to each other. But basically, it's sometimes a full nude photo, sometimes it's just pieces of nude photos."
Whatever their reasons for sending the picture, many don't fully grasp the consequences, Wood said.
For one, there's a "110 per cent" chance it will be shown to someone else.
"I've had kids that I worked with in junior high and are now in high school and will say, 'Jane, I sent pictures like in Grade 8. I wasn't thinking and now they're being passed around again in high school.'"
Worse, it could appear on an X-rated website, be used for blackmail, or lead to charges such as child pornography, said Crown attorney Lisa Goulden.
She said there is "ongoing debate" about what images would qualify as obscenity or child pornography.
"If you are sending a photograph that depicts, for instance, the breast or the lower body region, that would feature as a dominant characteristic the sexual characteristics of the person, then that would be engaged as child pornography if the person depicted is under the age of 18."
When are charges pursued?
However, Goulden said, there is a "mixed philosophy or attitude" in the justice system when it comes to people of the same age consensually sharing sexual images.
The danger is when the image is passed on, she said.
"So you take a child, a girl or a boy, who sends an image of that nature to another person and says 'I consent to you looking at it.' At that point, perhaps we wouldn't be engaging into a criminal justice investigation. But what if that image is then forwarded on to someone else without the child's permission? At that point, we've engaged in another criminal offence, which is the distribution of intimate images."
There are other potential charges as well, Goulden said.
"For instance, if a child asks another child to do an act, a sexual act, videotape it, and then maybe hook up and we can do that act or do something similar later, then you might be engaging in another criminal offence," she said.
Images resurface later
"That could be luring. That could be making sexually explicit materials available for the purpose of committing a sexual offence. That could be the dissemination of obscene materials."
Goulden said what concerns her as a Crown attorney is that these images, even if they were originally shared with consent among a couple, once they are on a computer or phone, they can resurface at any time.
They may break up, they may have a falling out, and there we have it — we have an image that can be used to distribute, to humiliate the person, to get revenge. — Lisa Goulden
"They may break up, they may have a falling out, and there we have it — we have an image that can be used to distribute, to humiliate the person, to get revenge and what is more frightening is who sees those images?" she said.
"There is a lot of people out there that are actively scanning for any new, fresh, sexually explicit images of children. We don't know who they are. The children might not know who they are, but those people might be able to locate that child."
Terri MacAdam, director of student services with the Public Schools Branch, said school officials are trying address the issue through education and developing protocols. In 2018, she helped develop the Safe and Caring Learning Environments Procedure, which outlines what to do and who to contact for a variety of incidents, including cyber bullying and sexual misconduct.
MacAdam said it can ripple through the school environment even if it happens outside of school hours.
"Especially if those revenge photos are sent or if a child finds out that the photo has been sent to multiple people, if a child has received an unsolicited photo and they come into the school and they're upset about it," she said.
Issue in school
"So as soon as it comes into our learning environment it does become our issue, even if it happened Sunday night, it happened on a home PC or it happened on their personal phone at home."
Wood said it's important for parents learn about apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and to have conversations with their kids about the dangers of sending and receiving sexual images, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to speak about..
She said kids today are not as shy about their bodies as their parents may have been when they were that age. And it's even easier to shed those inhibitions when you're having a conversation online.
"It seems like our whole society is very sexualized. So kids are starting to feel that too. That ... in order to get someone I need to kind of sexualize it," Wood said. "When you're on a phone and you're not seeing the person, it's much easier to ask for a picture."
She adds that not every kid is sending or receiving nude pictures, every "type" of kid surely is.
"It's not just the kids that they think are doing drugs and smoking out of vapes. It's kids that are straight-A students and on all the sports teams, they're sending the photos too."
More P.E.I. news