Young men and women creating sexually explicit videos has caught out schools, but the severity of anti-sexting punishments from courts has teachers looking for alternative responses.

The phenomenon has “give the porn industry a run for its money”, admits Juliet Summers, an online youth worker for the South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA). Summers told Crikey the activity normalised sexually explicit behaviour and, while sexting was an issue, young people had gone one step further, making and distributing videos, not merely still images. Development in mobile phone technology had made it easy for young people to take and share sexual images and videos.

She told Crikey that when young people sexted and got involved in the making of sex videos, sexual activity became a high priority and this altered their view of intimacy in relationships.

SECASA manager Carolyn Worth, in a submission to Victoria’s sexting inquiry, said the young appeared to consider the practice “a form of flirting and part of dating rituals”. At its simplest, she argued, this behaviour amounted to “a boyfriend and girlfriend exchanging intimate pictures of each other” and should not be the business of the state:

“Governments should not enter the bedrooms of the general public. Unfortunately, mobile phones do not fit that category even if some of the behaviour recorded does fit bedroom behaviour for an older age group.”

A federal government survey last year of more than 33,000 young Australians’ online habits found one in five young women over 18 had sent a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves over the internet while one in six youths under 18 had sent sexual images of themselves. It said that, in general, students and parents seemed unaware that sexting, even with consent, was illegal.

Worth maintained there were signs “schools are handling some of these incidents in-house due to the severity of the Magistrate Court outcomes”. It was important “to avoid unnecessarily criminalising young people”, her submission said. “Putting juveniles on the Sex Offenders’ Register serves no useful purpose … There is considerable research that shows that adolescents who commit offences tend to settle down as they get older.”

The register had been created to reduce the likelihood of re-offending, aid investigation and prosecution of any future offences and prevent registered sex offenders from working in child-related employment. As a consequence, being on the register made it harder for a young person to make the transition to adulthood because it restricted job opportunities.

Worth suggested that new educational methods were needed if the battle against sexting was to be won, and recommended schools be given authority to discipline students involved in sexting.

Summers called for new legislation to spare young people from a life-long punishment. “Young people caught sexting can’t [shouldn’t] be placed on the Sex Offenders’ Registry, it was made for serial offenders such as pedophiles,” she said.

Summers says teachers needed the option of dealing with the issue themselves, as they are reluctant to report children involved in s-xting. SECASA proposed that, as a first step, teachers be permitted to contact parents without having to involve the police and give teachers certain discretionary powers when dealing with sexting incidents.

The Victorian Privacy Commissioner’s director of privacy awareness, David Taylor, disagreed, telling Crikey teachers already played an important educational role and it is not appropriate they take on a different responsibility. “Teachers shouldn’t have to police children’s behaviour outside of school,” he said, explaining that sexting occurred in different contexts and there “can’t be a blanket rule”.