Children as young as eight were sexting and their primary schools were not teaching them anything about the risks, South Australian academic Lesley-Anne Ey has told the Victorian Parliament’s sexting inquiry.

Research conducted in a Queensland primary school had found girls as young as eight were sending naked pictures of themselves to other pupils, Ms Ey’s submission claimed. And, considering the proliferation of platforms on which images could be sent – including iPhones, iPads, iPods and mobile phones – child sexting was likely to increase “because more children are becoming owners of digital technology at younger ages”.

Ms Ey, an early-childhood researcher at the University of South Australia, told Crikey that sexual behaviour in primary schools, including sexting, was a lot more common than parents and schools were aware of. “We live in a sexualised society. Children are copying behaviours they don’t understand.”

Children were often exposed to pornography on the internet, the television and in advertising, Ms Ey said.  “Our culture values sexiness and children want to live up to our cultural ideal.”

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Ms Ey’s submission said sexting education was not a compulsory subject in schools where it was offered and she was “not aware of any primary schools addressing the issue”.

The Australian Government’s CyberSmart website had published educational content about sexting for high school teachers, students and parents but not for children of primary-school age.

Ms Ey’s submission said there was a desperate need for parents and schools to begin early in educating children about their bodies and the risks internet and mobile technology posed to them. Her submission cited studies showing that the faculty of abstract thinking did not develop until 11 years of age: “This means they do not forward-think or consider consequences of their actions.”

She told Crikey that ensuring compulsory education was available to children was a government responsibility, while schools were best placed to deliver instruction to students and parents alike.

Greg Gebhart, senior cyber-safety trainer with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, conceded the lack of resources when it came to guiding young children on how to use image-capturing devices responsibly but told Crikey this was because the problem was “so new and has moved so quickly”.

According to the CyberSmart website, young children are generally not involved in sexting, but the site does advise parents about ways they could reduce the risk. The website asserts that sexting can lead to cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking and sexual harassment.

Mr Gebhart said he was concerned about sexting education beginning too early before children had even heard of the practice, for fear such lessons would unwittingly encourage the very conduct they sought to prevent. Children of primary school age were more likely to receive sexts than send them, he added, but any child with a mobile phone was at risk.

Mr Gebhart agreed there was no compulsory education in schools, but he did take issue with Ms Ey’s contention that schools were not being proactive about alerting parents and children to the risks involved.