Is it right to criminalise children who share sexts?

Are kids sharing sex images simply in need of education on the dangers of social media exposure, or are the police right to caution them – as they did last week?

Amelia Abraham, junior editor at Vice

We all do silly things when were teenagers, and I wouldnt rank sexting particularly highly on the list. Sure, in some unfortunate cases, topless selfies and dick pics can fall into the wrong hands, with compromising images of young people circulating around entire schools. But is the person who consensually took the self-portrait and sent it on really to blame for the distribution of an indecent image once it goes sufficiently viral for the police to catch wind of it?

Nottinghamshire polices sexual exploitation investigation unit seems to think so, after warning last week that teenagers who text explicit images of themselves could face prosecution under the Protection of Children Act (1978). If they were to be charged under the act, this sounds like the manifestation of the rightwing medias two favourite moral panics when it comes to young people: the idea that all teenagers are both sex mad and tech obsessed – beyond even their own control. I find the concept patronising.

Christina Kenny, writer and journalist

I have to confess, Im quite surprised that youre so blasé about sexting. We live in an age where photos can be taken, copied and distributed to millions of people with a few taps of a smartphone keypad. And its happening – look at these young people in Nottinghamshire.

Its easy to laugh this off as silliness, but consider this: 62% of UK children have their own smartphones. We need to send children the strongest possible message about thinking before they share sensitive information or images with their peers.

This isnt about grown-ups patronising teenagers, its about people creating and distributing child-sex images. Thats a crime, and every time that picture is viewed another crime is committed. It doesnt matter whether the person looking at the photo is a pervy old man or a blushing 15-year-old – although obviously, the law will treat these people very differently.

AA I realise that social media is the main arena for slut-shaming and revenge porn. However, rather than send out a strong message through criminalisation, we need to open up a conversation with young people and encourage them to critically consider their own actions – something of which they are more than capable.

Sex education in British schools has never been up to par (I went to a convent school: sex didnt exist), but current school curriculums are far from up to date on the risks that technology poses to teenagers.

The same should go for sext education as for sex education: teach teenagers to wait until theyre old enough, to choose their partner wisely, and for Gods sake, crop their head out of the picture. Were living in a time when technology is increasingly becoming part of sexual interaction, just as it is with everyday interaction; and if we cant stop that, we need to adapt the way that we educate young people.

I wouldnt dispute for a second that the distribution of child-sex images is a heinous crime, but if a naked picture of a 14-year-old girl is circulating on the internet, the adults who share that image should be seen as culpable, not the girl who took an ill-advised photo.

CK I agree that its usually a good idea to assume that children are the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators – especially when it comes to sex crimes. But sexual activity between children has been illegal for a long time, and continues to be illegal: its just not prosecuted very often, since its rarely in the public interest to do so.

Again, the internet changes everything in this respect. This isnt about randy teens bonking a few weeks shy of their 16th birthdays – its about children creating, copying and distributing images of themselves in a format that has been designed to be shared with unimaginably huge numbers of people. How is that in the public interest?

Creating and distributing child sex images is a crime, and children have to understand that. Tragically, many kids do stuff every day that, like this, is both against the law and has no victims other than themselves – such as taking drugs, or selling their bodies on the street. Its unthinkable that those things would be overlooked if discovered by parents and lawmakers – so why should sending out indecent images of themselves be treated any differently?

Doling out formal cautions is clearly not a sustainable solution. But this case has drawn attention to a huge problem that has to be addressed by several groups – parents, teachers, politicians and, ultimately, the law. Its deeply troubling that the upset it has provoked shows that its not only teenagers who dont realise that lack of consent and sharing child-sex images is against the law – its adults, too.

AA I understand where you are coming from, but a large problem for me is how black and white this all is. The cognitive development of a 10-year-old (and thus her or his ability to make an informed decision about whether or not she/he should take or share a pornographic image) differs dramatically from that of a 17-year-old, and yet if they were to be charged under the Protection of Children Act they would be held equally accountable.

That accountability could result in young people being placed on the sex offenders list for taking a photograph that they may have been pressured to take, or may simply not have understood the gravity of – because in 2014, womens boobs, for example, are to be seen everywhere from music videos to magazines.

Presumably the police would only become involved in the instance that – God forbid – the image had fallen into the wrong hands, and sometimes the knowledge that this has happened can cause a young person enough pain without them being prosecuted too.

CK I think thats something we can both agree on! But lets backtrack… the teenagers in this particular case havent been convicted or even charged with a crime; theyve been handed cautions. This is a little heavy-handed, perhaps (especially given the incredibly embarrassing circumstances), as a caution could sit on their records for ever, but it wont land them on the sexual offenders register permanently.

The problem with dismissing out of hand the criminalisation of minors is that it could extend to showing leniency to 17-year-olds who make and distribute images of younger teens. Where do you draw the line? Hopefully, on a case-by-case basis. I cant see 10-year-olds being prosecuted over this, but that option should be there for teens who are old enough to know better.

Like you, I find it really sad that as the spaces that children inhabit have become sexualised, sex has become trivialised. Its up to us as adults to ensure that children understand that when they send explicit selfies, its a violation of their bodily integrity, and it could get them into considerable trouble further down the line. And given how vulnerable teenagers are, its all the more important that the law is enforced.

This article was written by Victor

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