Every year thousands of young people suffer from severe mental health problems as a result of malicious sharing of private, intimate photos or videos without consent – revenge porn. A solution needs to be found before it’s too late, but what?
By Lucy Hill | @Lucyyhill | Images by Adrian Swancar @a_d_s_w and Jernej Graj @jernejgraj
“I felt like it would never go away, that nobody would ever talk to me again and I’d just be known as the stupid girl that everyone had seen naked.” These were the thoughts running through 15 year old Evie’s (name changed for privacy reasons) head when she found out that intimate photos of herself had been shared around her whole year group at school. She was only in year nine, yet she had just found herself in the centre of a revenge porn investigation.
Evie had been with her boyfriend a few months when she decided, in the privacy of her own room, to take and send intimate photos to him. “I’m not entirely sure why I sent the photos in the first place. He kept asking and I didn’t really think too much of it so I just did it.”. It wasn’t until later that she realised he had taken screenshots of the photos without her consent. “I was so confused at first because I didn’t even know he had the photos. But then everything just moved so fast, teachers were involved and my parents were called into school. I was so embarrassed.”
One in three girls in secondary schools have been victims of a revenge porn incident. Out of these, over a quarter have contemplated self-harm or even suicide. Mental health problems in school-aged children because of these incidents increased by 22% last year and with the magnifying effect of social media, this is only getting worse. Charities like The Cyber Helpline and The Revenge Porn helpline in the UK have been campaigning for many years to provide better education in schools to stop this crime and protect young people’s mental health. So why are so many children still suffering?
Evie’s mental health plummeted as a result of the incident and the lack of support she received from her school was shocking: “The school kind of just left it really. Everyone was still making fun of me and I felt like there was no escape.” After months and months of awful abuse from her peers and lack of care from the school, Evie and her family decided that enough was enough. “I was in such a bad place. I knew everyone had the photos and I lost all of my friends. The school didn’t care; I don’t think they wanted the negative attention and it was easier for them to just disregard me. All of the teachers would just ignore me.” The shocking lack of care the school showed for a 15 year old girl and their inability to even attempt to stop the bullying was the last straw for Evie’s parents: “They ended up taking me out of that school and I was home-schooled until year 11. I think they were just so scared I would end up harming myself and I’m so glad they did because I was definitely in that headspace.”
And Evie is not the only schoolchild who left their schools as a result of a revenge porn incident. According to the Victim Support Network, over 500 young girls last year transferred schools as a result of bullying and poor pastoral care after they were victims of revenge porn whilst at school. Schools in the UK have a duty to care for every child that is enrolled there and in cases like Evie’s or many others it is abundantly clear that the support systems are not strong enough to combat the severe mental health problems that can arise from being a victim of a crime like revenge porn. Whether this is due to a lack of time and resources or they simply don’t think it is a big enough issue, something needs to change. Among those calling for change is Rory Innes, the founder of The Cyber Helpline, a charity he set up in 2018 so that individuals who are victims of revenge porn and other cybercrimes can have the support they need. So far, they have helped over 13,000 people like Evie and he has seen first-hand the devastating effects revenge porn can have on young people: “It has an immediate impact on mental health. It has long term effects too- once the content is out there it never truly goes away and I’ve seen many young people even contemplate suicide because of this.” The fear that the photos can never truly go away and not knowing if they will ever resurface on social media is a very real and scary feeling for many victims of revenge porn and not one that will ever fully leave them: “We asked all of the people who have used our service to score the impact that revenge porn has had on them in terms of various different issues and consistently the impact on mental health is the highest area of impact for everyone.” So many victims of revenge porn feel this way; after Evie became a victim of revenge porn, she was at her lowest point: “Nobody would talk to me and I got really depressed, it was definitely the worst mental state I’ve ever been in.I definitely contemplated suicide, which is so sad to think about now”
Rory believes that the reason many victims end up leaving their schools is down to the element of victim shaming which is involved: “Whether they mean to or not, many schools put quite a bit of blame on the victim. We get so many people who come to us and say that their teachers essentially told them it was their fault for sending the photos.” This happened to Evie too, when her intimate photos were sent around the school: “The school actually said to me that I should have thought about this happening before I sent it, and maybe if I had then I wouldn’t be in this position.” Schools need to do better; they need to educate young people on the risks of sending intimate images before it happens, or if not then they need to be there for the victims when it inevitably does happen.
Luckily for Evie, being homeschooled changed her life and she is doing so much better now, four years on from the incident:“ Of course I still think about it, but I’m doing so much better now. I’m at college and I feel so much more confident and happy in myself now.” This is great but not everyone is this lucky and for many people, escaping the bullying and mental health problems that can arise from being a victim of revenge porn is not possible. This is the reason that change is so desperately needed.
The effects revenge porn can have on young children are devastating; the effect it has on mental health and self-esteem can be irreversible, yet not enough is seemingly being done about it. It’s time schools step up and educate young people on the risks of sending these kinds of images to stop revenge porn and the mental health problems which stem from it, for good.