‘Sexting’ is a phenomenon that’s been hitting the headlines with increasing regularity over the past few years, not least because it combines existing concerns about youth sexuality with fears over new technology. The practice involves sending sexually explicit messages via digital means, such as email, text or mobile apps. It’s also been closely linked to ‘revenge porn’, which is when intimate sexual images (normally shared with a partner) are made public once a relationship has broken down, in a deliberate attempt to humiliate and harass the subject.
Most concerns for young people are reputational: what are the social implications of a ‘private’ photo being made public? How might it affect future prospects? What emotional damage is being caused? A psychiatrist from the Priory recently warned that issues such as sexting and other forms of cyber-abuse will lead to a rise in the number of children with mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, depression and self-harm. We still don’t know, she said, what the long term effects will be on young people who’ve had indecent images of them shared without their consent.
One of the solutions put forward is better education for young people about the risks of sexting. This is echoed by organisations like the NSPCC, who commissioned an in-depth study of teenagers and sexting in 2013. Startlingly, the findings highlighted that most ‘dangers’ (coercive or predatory sexual behaviour) come from peers, not the adult stranger that most of us think of. Perhaps less surprisingly, the report also linked to concerns over the wider, more ‘normalised’ issue of the sexual objectification of women and girls.
Sending sexual images of anyone under the age of 18 is a criminal offence; it is a criminal offence to possess those images and a criminal offence to create them (including ‘selfies’).
Despite the wealth of existing research around cyberbullying and sexting, there is another risk which is often overlooked: the legal implications. For the past two years I’ve been delivering training in schools on ‘media law and ethics’, something which is standard for journalists but applies to anyone broadcasting, distributing or publishing content, which, thanks to the Internet, means nearly everyone. Students tend to be most shocked to hear that sending sexual images of anyone under the age of 18 is actually a criminal offence. Likewise, it is a criminal offence to possess those images and a criminal offence to create them (this includes if the creator is themselves underage and taking a ‘selfie’).
The maximum sentence for offences relating to indecent images of children can be up to ten years in prison. Even without that, a criminal record and joining the sex offender’s register is a real risk for young people (who are also shocked to hear that they are criminally responsible from the age of ten). Last year, two Nottinghamshire teenagers made headlines after the girl sent a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend and they were subsequently criminally investigated. The police warned that in future cases they would consider prosecution, even against children.
The laws around sexting often confuse young people for two reasons. Firstly, because it seems contradictory: the age of consent is 16, while the law regarding indecent images of children applies to anyone under the age of 18. Secondly, (as research has shown) it’s just become ‘normal’ for a lot of teenagers negotiating relationships in the digital age.
Making young people aware of the legal implications needs to be a priority for youth workers, family members and teachers, who often face tough decisions about whether to involve the police. The real challenge when it comes to conversations about sexting with young people is to avoid the temptation to demonise the technology itself; instead we need to situate our discussions among broader themes around sex and relationships: rights to one’s own body, consent, intimacy, empathy, privacy, trust and respect.
SEXTING: SOME KEY ADVICE
- Any indecent images or video of anyone under 18 is a criminal offence. Although the age of sexual consent is 16, in England and Wales, you must be at least 18 to be involved in pornographic videos or photos.
- It is illegal to distribute (share), possess or create indecent images of children – and that includes a child taking a sexual image of themselves. It is also illegal for an adult (over 18) to ask a child to send them sexually explicit images.
- Anyone found guilty of offences relating to indecent images of children could face a criminal record, up to ten years in prison, and may also have to join the sex offender’s register.
- If young people come across any sexual content of someone who looks young, it’s important to report it immediately and never send the message on to other people. Police, schools and youth workers have a duty to try and contain the situation and minimise harm caused to the young person involved.
- Try to avoid victim-blaming or judgemental comments about young people who have been involved in sexting. It could be that they are being sexually abused, blackmailed, in an abusive relationship, coerced, controlled or harassed into taking part. Negative remarks risk putting young people off reporting something they’re worried about.
- Remind young people that even using apps like ‘Snapchat’ (where content ‘disappears’ after viewing) may not mean that photos are private. Last year, thousands of Snapchat messages were posted online by hackers. Sending indecent images of children this way is still breaking the law.
- ‘Revenge porn’ (sharing someone’s private sexual images or video without their consent and with the intention of harming, humiliating or harassing them) is a criminal offence even if they are over 18, and can result in up to two years in prison.
If young people want advice, support or information about sexting, you can suggest Childline or ThinkUKnow’s website, or download the ZipIt app.
Holly Powell-Jones is a freelance journalist, who designs and delivers training in online and social media law and ethics. @Holly_PJ