Our schools will be back soon after a long break. But it won’t be long, as has happened thousands of times in recent years, a headmaster sitting opposite the desk of a nervous-looking student and their parents.
At first they have no idea why they have been summoned. They will simply have been told that there is ‘safety protection’.
But the reason will come to them when the head takes a deep breath and starts a worn-out speech to explain that certain explicit ‘photos’ – selfies taken by their child – came to their attention because a concerned parent informed the school brought after seeing on their own child’s phone.
One or both affected children will be addressed, warned that asking or sharing nude photos is a police matter – and that an officer should question them and look at their phone before deciding whether or not an offense has been committed.
Andy Phippen, professor of digital law at Bournemouth University, explored how explicit texts sent by teenagers and reported to the police could affect their future careers (file image)
As we restart life after the lock, there can be many such encounters, such as images popping up of ‘sexting’ when kids were stuck at home.
A report in June claimed that there has been a sharp increase in sexual messages from young people since March.
British technology company SafeToNet used software to analyze 70 million text messages from children under the age of 16 in the UK and found that sexual and cyber bullying increased text and graphics by 182 percent. It also turned out that a six-year-old had sent sexually explicit messages.
Of course, the idea of a six-year-old sending such a message is very serious. But the majority have probably been teenagers, seeking confirmation that they are desirable and attractive to their peers at a time when they felt particularly forgotten.
As a professor of digital law, I visited schools across the country for ten years.
When I ask what young people know about sharing explicit photos, I often hear that they have simply been told by teachers and police officers (both very unlikely specially trained in this area) that it is illegal. I think this attitude means that our children are too scared to tell us if they need help. We come hard on them and close our eyes to the fact that they are still children.
During a conversation I had with a 14-year-old boy, I asked why his peers sent intimate photos. He replied, “To get nudes back from girls.”
“Does that ever work?” I continued.
“No, never,” he replied.
Professor Andy explained that Outcome 21 is not a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card as the incident can still be revealed when that child applies for certain jobs (file image)
It could also explain a case where two teenage girls sent nude pictures of themselves to a group of popular boys because they were told ‘everyone is doing it’.
Nor should we assume that all victims are girls. A boy was initially caught shoplifting. It turned out that he was being blackmailed by a girl to get her makeup in exchange for not sharing an intimate photo he sent.
Teenagers have always researched their sexuality. But as they spend so much of their lives online, technology has made that discovery public.
Most messages remain private. But research shows that 10 percent is shared or forwarded.
But this happens – perhaps a poorly thought out decision to share a photo with friends or take revenge after a breakup – it’s not hard to imagine the trauma those involved feel.
After all, who can say that they didn’t do anything reckless when they were in school and desperately wanted to be noticed or admired by the opposite sex? The difference now is that our teenagers carry powerful camera phones.
Girls were told that everyone sends boys selfies
Nude photos of minors with children under 14 have been distributed nearly 2700 times in the past three years, according to a recent request for a freedom of information law.
In more than 2,500 cases, these children received ‘Outcome 21s’. This is a police label introduced three years ago to try to cope with the large number of children arrested for self-generated sexual images. Anyone under 18 who creates, sends, or shares such an image may be arrested.
It also allows the police to record an incident without taking further action, such as arrest or leaving the child with a criminal record.
However, an Outcome 21 is not a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card.
When that child applies for a job, such as education that requires a more in-depth criminal record check, the incident can still be revealed if the chief of police considers it appropriate.
As a ticking time bomb, we don’t yet know what effect Outcome 21s will have on children’s future careers.
The Internet Watch Foundation charity estimates that a third of the images on the Internet that qualify as “child abuse” were taken by the children themselves or placed on the photos (file image)
What we do know is that using the criminal justice system to prevent young people from exchanging images doesn’t work. A recent report from the Internet Watch Foundation’s charity estimated that one-third of the images on the Internet that were labeled “ child abuse ” were taken by the children themselves or posted – and later shared more widely.
Girls can be seen in about 80 percent of the images, many of which will result from coercion and grooming.
They may not have learned how to recognize the signs of a violent relationship or how to say no. These images may also have been shared by guys who have not learned that sharing such photos is never acceptable no matter how bad they feel after a breakup.
Our young people urgently need guidance to think deeply about privacy issues and risks. But relying on Result 21 and police intervention can make it harder to stay safe.
The applicable laws are not suitable for the purpose. They are still based on the Protection of Children Act of 1978, lobbied by the famous Mary Whitehouse moral campaign. It was entirely aimed at the exploitation of children by adults and made it a criminal offense to take, distribute or possess an indecent photograph of a minor.
If a film roll had to be developed at a drugstore, no one could have foreseen that the children would make the explicit images.
Professor Andy Phippen, said that parents and teachers should help young people learn to deal with risks, rather than making children feel like criminals (file image)
The Outcome 21 is an attempt to amend the laws and prevent so many children from being arrested. But it is simply not enough. In some areas, they are thrown around like candy.
Since arresting five youths under 18 since December 2016, Staffordshire Police have issued a large number of results from 21 to 659. In the meantime, they have made 16 arrests in Hampshire, but only delivered two results 21.
The way forward is not to make children feel like criminals. Parents and teachers should help young people learn to deal with risks and confidence through better sex education.
If we want to develop young people who are ‘digitally resilient’, we need to help them explore appreciation, respect, boundaries and empathy, regardless of the technologies they use.
And we need to talk to our kids about this. So if they get a message that says something like “I really like you, send me a nude and I might go out with you,” they’ll see it for what it is – an attempt to do instead of an invite for a relationship.
As a society, this would give us a much better chance of addressing these issues than simply saying, “Don’t do it, it’s illegal.”
It’s not just about decriminalizing sexting or asking the police to ignore it.
There is no simple single answer – because some sexts are sent with consent between teens and others are due to coercion.
What I would like to see is a good debate and a more flexible approach so that we can deal with sexting where victims are legally protected, on a case-by-case basis, rather than fearing to reveal the threat of arrest.
We need legislation that suits the digital world in which young people live.
Interview by Tanith Carey
For help for children, young people and parents to deal with sexting issues, go to: swgfl.org.uk/resources/so-you-got-naked-online/