A new survey of young Canadians shows large increases in sexting — the sending and receiving of "sexy, nude or partially nude" images. 

The survey, "Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age,” is billed as the largest and most comprehensive study of internet use by young Canadians and was released Thursday by Ottawa-based group MediaSmarts. 

The CBC spoke with Kathy Macdonald — a former Calgary police officer who now works as a security consultant and is a cyber-safety specialist with YouthLink Calgary — about the dangers of sexting and what a parent can do if their child is involved in the practice. 

How can parents monitor for sexting while respecting their child's privacy?

Before giving your child a mobile device, have a conversation about rules surrounding the appropriate use of the device. Ensure you agree on well-defined personal boundaries around the taking and sharing of personal photographs and videos.

sexting-smartphone

One in five high school students surveyed say they received a sext of someone that was forwarded to them by someone else, according to a new survey. (CBC)

Once the child has the device, be aware of, and monitor on an ongoing basis, the apps your kids are using. Foster a level of mutual trust and encourage your kids to tell you if they encounter any kind of problem. Make sure they know that you will support them regardless of what they may have inadvertently come across online.

Help your kids set up accounts with strong passwords on websites you approve of. Set up an alert to help monitor their online identity at a reputable alert site like Google.com/alerts or, for Twitter, at twilert.com.

How potentially damaging are "sexts"? (Or, what is the danger in sexting?)

Creating or sending sexually explicit images of youth or teens can be extremely damaging to their emotional well-being. Sexually explicit, nude or semi-nude images, whether photographs or video, can be used to harass, embarrass, threaten, blackmail and otherwise exploit that child. Often creating ongoing problems at school and in the community. Once images are online, or have been transmitted electronically, it is extremely difficult to remove them.

Kids should be well educated on the risks of sending any type of image of themselves before they are given electronic devices with camera and send capabilities. One key message to communicate is that they never know who will be checking them out online: future educational institutions, community groups, future employers. Being responsible for the digital footprint you leave goes part and parcel with the right to having and using this technology.

If a young person does receive a sext from another containing a graphic picture, is it illegal? And what could be the consequences?

Some photos are against the law as they that fall under the category of child pornography under the Canadian Criminal Code. It is important to explain to kids that just because they have the technology to take a picture of themselves, that doesn’t mean it is a legal activity to be involved in. Under the Criminal Code, it is illegal to make, distribute or possess a sexually explicit image of any person under the age of 18 years.

If a child receives a sexually explicit picture from an adult, this should be reported immediately to the police or to CyberTip.ca. If a child receives a sexually explicit picture from a peer, they should take it to their parent or a responsible adult so they can educate the sender or, if necessary, report it to the authorities.

If you are really concerned as a parent that your child is involved in sexting, what is your advice? 

The signs that your child may be involved in or a victim of online exploitation as a result of sexting may include sadness, anger, loss of interest in hobbies, school, sports or a sudden change in their online activity. These children need support and, in some cases, may need help from professionals.

If you are concerned your child is involved in sexting, talk about it with them. There are also organizations like KidsHelpPhone.ca that can kids can call 24/7 for assistance or even just to talk to someone who will understand. Another resource is NeedHelpNow.ca which has a step-by-step guide on how to get through an online exploitation incident.

If a parent discovers their child has sent or received a sext, how do you think they should deal with it? 

Don’t panic! Use this incident as a teachable moment and get practical support from a website like NeedHelpNow.ca.

Is the conversation different — depending on if your child sends or receives the image?

Whether sending or receiving an image, a digital footprint is created that could follow the child for a very long time. Kids often believe that their photos disappear using certain apps or that they are anonymous when they use certain websites.

There are still opportunities to capture screen shots using these platforms and risks are present whenever an image is sent or received. We always want to remind kids to not do anything in front of a camera that they would not want the world (including their parents or grandparents) to see.