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Teen boys are 'abusing' girls online. But how do we talk about it?

The response of Australian police in Queensland Wednesday was predictable and disturbing.

In the wake of revelations reported in regarding the sharing of more than 2,000 non-consensual, intimate photos of teens and young women in a global "porn ring," the police chose to blame the victim.

"Pictures you post on social media sites are unfortunately there for the taking to anyone who is your friend, or even a friend of a friend," they said in a statement. 

However for teenagers, there is little delineation left between life online and life offline. It's been that way since smartphones were placed in the hands of nine out of 10 Australian teenagers. It could be said that authorities, schools and parents who pretend there is such a separation are avoiding reality and thus continuing to put young people in danger.

How can police shift their focus to address the perpetrators? How do we talk to teenage boys, who will soon become young men, about the consequences of sharing these images? 

We could start by asking them.

"I've got heaps of Miami High girls. Kik me if you wanna trade!" one user wrote on the website in question.

David, a 17-year-old student in northern New South Wales, told Mashable Australia the sharing of intimate photos of girls was relatively common towards the end of high school. Most often, they are screenshots of pictures taken on Snapchat or similar platforms, rather than photos culled from Facebook.

He said boys share such photos to prove something to their friends. "A large amount of the time, it would be to impress other boys, unless they really had an axe to grind with someone," David said.

In his experience, boys are more likely to blame the girl for the exposure of their intimate photos than their friends who share them. Something he attributed to the strong ties of "mateship," along with attitudes that still celebrate the objectification of women. 

Michael Salter, senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University, also believes it's a competition. "It becomes a hunt, it becomes a form of exchange between boys and men through the humiliation of women and girls," he told Mashable Australia

We can't forget that for teenage boys as well as girls, it's often important to be perceived as transgressive, even if they know it's wrong deep down. "It's really important in a lot of male peer contexts to be seen to be willing to break the rules, to break the norms and even to break the law," Salter said. 

Schools, parents and the community have a role to play in promoting respectful relationships that have the power to cut through peer relationships which can reinforce misogyny.

Toby, a 16-year-old in Sydney, said students at his school hadn't heard much about the issue from teachers and parents. "It's kind of ignored on a large level, people don't want to talk about it," he said. 

"A lot of people feel really uncomfortable talking about it, especially at an all-boys school. Confronting young men about it takes a lot of courage."

In David's view, the types of conversations need to expand. Currently, online education sessions at school focus mostly on cyberbullying and not sharing personal information with strangers, rather than the sharing of compromising photos among students. 

"I've had probably a dozen cyberbullying talks," he said. "There should be more of a focus on what to do in a situation where compromising things are presented to you or if it's sent to you."

Like David, Toby agreed the sharing of intimate photos is not talked about as much as cyberbullying, but suggested if it is addressed, it should be talked about without frills. 

"Especially with adolescents, they don't react to something unless you give them the reality of the situation," he said.

In Salter's view, there needs to be consequences for this type of behaviour. 

"It's not just about having a conversation with boys and men about the seriousness of the situation," he said. "It has to be reinforced with real consequences to break up this sense of impunity a lot of boys and men have developed, simply because the police have not historically prioritised this sort of crime."

Websites like the one reported in are not created accidentally. It is a premeditated behaviour and should be addressed as such. 

David also believes teenagers should be more informed about the legal consequences of sharing intimate photos — something they're not entirely cognisant of currently.

In Australia, there is a legal framework in place to respond to these issues, Salter said. The important step is having police and prosecutors advance these cases in order to establish a clear community message regarding how they'll be treated in the justice system.

Salter suggested schools should combine sex education with an anti-bullying, "respectful relationships" framework and embed it from the earliest years of schooling.

"Having a conversation with boys about masculinity, around the pressures places on them culturally and in peer groups to act in certain ways and giving them tools to challenge that and different responses when they feel like they are at risk of engaging in at risk or disrespectful behaviour," he explained.

This stays away from the refrain of telling kids not share the images in the first place. "It’s a common reaction, but you can't really say that to our generation because we're so connected to our friends through social media," Toby explained. 

"It's really hard to tell a teenager not to share something or post something because it's just second nature to them right now."

Amanda Third, a researcher Western Sydney University who investigates technology and young people, also encouraged a campaign aimed at the bystanders. "Bystanders are powerful peers who can stand up and call out behaviour that's not on," she said. "That exertion of social pressure has great impact."

The reality of life online is something parents could address by modelling good behaviour. As Third pointed out, many parents post photographs of their kids online constantly. 

"You need to ask your kids 'is it ok for me to put it up? This is what happens to it,'" she suggested. "Those conversations explore the boundaries and the ethics of representation and the circulation of images. It instils a sense of responsibility."

Nevertheless the issue, at its core, is another inflection of an age-old problem. In Third's view, conversations need to start in primary school that breakdown the binaries like girl's clothes as opposed to boy's clothes; girl's activities as opposed to boy's activities. That way, we can begin to undermine any form of antagonistic relationship between men and women in their teenage years and as they grow.

"By the time you hit your teenage years, you've bedded down your values," she added. "You've bedded down your attitude to the opposite sex."

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