“Sexting”, for the uninitiated, is the sending of explicit photos or messages to others using a mobile phone.
Having been popularised by smartphone messaging apps such as Snapchat, the trend has become common among young adults, and increasingly is part of modern dating.
That in itself is not a problem, but unfortunately sexting has been taken up by minors. According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), Britain’s equivalent of the FBI, child protection officers now investigate one sexting case every day. This news follows similar findings by the Internet Watch Foundation, a child protection group, and Microsoft, who in March found that children as young as seven are knowingly posting indecent images and videos of themselves online.
Zoe Hilton, head of safeguarding at CEOP Command, the NCA’s centre for tackling such abuse, told The Guardian that “young people are doing it a lot and see it as a relatively normal thing”. However she cautioned that images can be posted on websites where they are “found by an offender” who uses them “to target the young person”.
The problem is not unique to Britain, mind. Recently the South Korean government developed the parental-monitoring software “Smart Sheriff” after their Communications Commission ruled that every smartphone owned by a minor had to include such a tool.
Among both adults and the young sexting has also led to “revenge porn”, a spiteful act in which former lovers release explicit photos onto the Internet. Responding to this in February, the coalition government passed an amended Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which means those who release revenge porn on social networks or via text can be prosecuted, with penalties of up to two years in jail.
As implied by the punishment, the fallout from revenge porn, or other cases in which miscreants gain hold of sensitive images, can be devastating. Police in Northern Ireland are currently investigating the death of the teenager Ronan Hughes, who seemingly took his own life earlier this month after he was tricked into posting images of himself online.
Yet despite cases like this becoming more common, Hilton doesn’t think the government’s approach, which has mostly been to criminalise the act among youngsters, is appropriate:
“I think we have to recognise that sexting is actually very normative behaviour for children and young people. These are kids growing up in a very image-saturated environment. They are copying what they see older young adults do.”
At present, CEOP and the NCA are working to educate children, parents and carers about how to minimise risks and manage situations when they do go wrong – a move welcomed by childcare organisations Barnardo’s and Mumsnet.
But calls for sex education reform clash with the government’s commitment to spending less on schools overall. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, a think tank, projects that schools face austerity cuts of up to 12 percent in real terms over this Parliament.
With schools tightening their belts, it seems unlikely that tackling sexting will be a feasible priority. As such the Tories are leaving youngsters vulnerable to “sexploitation” and targeting.
Header Image – Woman Texting, September 2011 by JohnnyMrNinja