The perils of Image-Based Abuse

Woman using tablet on lounge 

It’s perfectly natural for parents to worry about their kids, particularly with this increasingly daunting online world hovering about us. I certainly worry about mine, for all sorts of reasons. But when it comes to my 11-year-old daughter, I have some real concerns that previous generations of parents haven’t had to contemplate: the perils of image-based abuse.

We are using this term, rather than “revenge porn”, to describe this vicious phenomenon, because often it is not about “revenge”, nor is it “porn” created for the interest of a broader online audience. Based on the broad range of scenarios we are seeing being reported into the eSafety Office, “image-based abuse” better describes this practice.

In the years to come, my daughter will no doubt experience peer pressure in one form or another. This is a rite of passage for all children and we are all striving to equip our kids with values, confidence and the resilience to help them make good choices and survive the inevitable onslaught.

But, because of the kinds of pressures young women are experiencing today, we not only need to teach our daughters to respect others, but also to respect themselves.

Unfortunately, it’s a harsh reality for many young women growing up in our society to feel the overwhelming pressure to share intimate images. Research by Plan International and Our Watch reveals 51 per cent of women aged 15-19 are often pressured to take ‘racy’ photos (known as “intimate images”) of themselves and to share them.

Combatting image-based abuse is an important new role for the eSafety Office. We are currently building an online national complaints portal, set to be available to Australians in the second half of 2017.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing a rise in complaints amongst young Australians in reports of sexting gone wrong to our Office. Just 20 months ago, when the Office opened its doors, 4% of our cyberbullying complaints involved sexting.  Today, more than 15% of these reports involve the sharing of intimate images without consent.

Welcome move by Facebook

Image-based abuse can also be posted for maximum exposure on popular social networking platforms, where the burden is generally placed on the already distressed victim to try and find the images and request take-downs from each individual website.

This is why the eSafety Office is so heartened that Facebook has made a significant global announcement this week to make it easier for victims to remove image-based abuse from their multiple online properties, seamlessly.

Facebook will be using globally accepted photo matching technology called PhotoDNA to prevent further attempts to share this image-based abuse on Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.

This is an important proactive step by Facebook to help stop this practice in its tracks and it is our hope that this can be extended to other responsible industry players to prevent these non-consensual intimate images from going viral.

I recently attended a Facebook-hosted event aimed at empowering young women, where I asked some teenagers if they felt peer pressure to share intimate images. “Hell yes,” one said, “And, I just say - Hell No!”  I quietly cheered inside. You go, girl!

Another young woman told me that every time her mum recites the old adage that, ‘If your friend jumps off a cliff, would you?’ she rolls her eyes. But, she also grudgingly admitted that the guidance applies when a love interest tries to coax you into sending a “rudie nudie.”

I hate to be the deliverer of bad news to Aussie parents, but sexting has started to become a normalised courtship ritual for teenagers. Unfortunately, teens are genetically programmed to be curious and take risks.  So, just wagging our fingers and telling them not to send an intimate image to the boy or girl of their dreams is not going to be an effective deterrent.

We need to find the right ways to apprise our children of the risks of sharing compromising photos and arm them with protective behaviours to manage these risks. This probably needs to happen earlier than we might think – about now in my household…

We need to have the conversation with our kids about sexting because this practice is increasingly leading to image-based abuse.

Lasting digital footprint

Teens can spend hours getting a selfie perfectly curated, controlling every element of the image they send. What they don’t seem to comprehend is the minute they share that same image, they have lost control of it – forever.  It is incredibly difficult for a teen to truly understand the devastating impacts that a widely shared intimate image might mean for them socially, emotionally or occupationally. Those “online mistakes” or “youthful digital indiscretions” become part of their lasting digital footprint.

One recent scenario reported to us involved ‘Scarlett’ sending ‘Rhett’ a few naked images while they were dating. The relationship eventually fizzled out but Scarlett was shocked to find images of herself and several other women Rhett had dated on an overseas website, called an “image board.” She was mortified to see that numerous users were asking where she was located so they could track her down and get more photos, posing a real risk to her personal safety.

At last count, there were more than 3,000 such websites dedicated to hosting “revenge porn” content around the world – many of these site administrators profit from the victim’s humiliation by charging them hundreds of dollars to take each image or video down.  This is “sexploitation” for commercial gain.

Another common practice associated with image-based abuse is ‘virtual card-swapping’. This involves posting naked images of women on websites set up for this purpose of curating, collecting and trading these images like they are Pokemon cards. Users receive rewards such as access to further images, or simply kudos, for finding images of particular women in their local area. Images are often posted with names, addresses, schools or other identifying information.

This became a huge issue last year with schoolgirls from almost 100 local Australian schools falling victim to this practice on an overseas website. The eSafety Office is fortunate to have an experienced CyberReport team which is empowered by legislation to remove images of young people under the age of 18.

I am pleased and proud to say that our team has been able to get 111 of the images taken down and helping to relieve the burden of anxiety weighing upon these young Australian women. But what about the thousands of others who we haven’t been able to assist?

Turning the tide

To truly turn the tide on this horrendous practice, we all have a role to play. We’ll be continuing to collaborate and facilitate solutions with our partners across social media and the tech industry, as good corporate social citizenship is vital to a solution.

But we all need to step up—parents, teachers, and young people themselves. We need young Australians to rise up and take responsibility for harms that otherwise result from passive observation.  While no young person wants to be a “dobber” or a “snitch”, we need to teach our children to become “upstanders” rather than “bystanders” and call out the symptoms of this culture when we see it. We need to lead the way for our youth—to teach them that respect must be universal, and abuse is never acceptable.

We also need to work at a cultural and societal level to stop blaming the victim for taking or sharing the photo in the first place, and focus on those who are perpetuating this kind of abuse. Often these are young men who are not only committing a most callous betrayal of trust, but are perpetuating an action intended to inflict pain and humiliation. Sharing intimate images without consent is not a victimless practice – and parents also need to hammer home the importance of trust and respect to our sons.

But there is more to be done at home, not only for parents to teach our daughters to “respect their self(ie)” but for parents to drill into their sons the fundamental importance of respect for women and of not violating the most intimate gesture of trust.


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