Last week we learned that Nottinghamshire police have distributed a letter to all of their schools, warning teachers and parents of the “grave concerns” they have about young people engaged in ‘sexting’, or the sharing of explicit or sexually provocative images using technology. The letter goes on to cite a couple of specific cases, including one where a teenage girl who sent a topless photo to her boyfriend was given a caution, along with her boyfriend who shared the image with his friends after the couple had an argument.
There’s no doubt that both of the children involved committed a serious crime, as the laws about the creation and distribution of child abuse images are very clear. What is concerning though is the message this sends out to children and their parents. At a time where sex education and e-safety work in schools is finally starting to get across a positive and helpful message to young people, here we have a draconian edict from the authorities threatening to undo a lot of hard work.
The excellent ‘So You Got Naked Online’ resource for young people produced by South West Grid for Learning, in a section on who can help you, states:
“The Law is on your side and was not designed to punish young people for making mistakes whilst experimenting with their sexuality. The law is aimed firmly at those who choose to trade or profit from sexual pictures of children.”
This statement is based on the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) lead position that was produced in cooperation with CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre). The following sections clarify this position (use of bold type is my own):
First time offenders should not usually face prosecution for such activities, instead an investigation to ensure that the young person is not at any risk and the use of established education programmes should be utilised. CEOP accept that in some cases, e.g. persistent offenders, a more robust approach may be called for- for example the use of reprimands. It is recommended that prosecution options are avoided, in particular the use legislation that would attract sex offender registration.
ACPO does not support the prosecution or criminalisation of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them. Being prosecuted through the criminal justice system is likely to be distressing and upsetting for children, especially if they are convicted and punished. The label of ‘sex offender’ that would be applied to a child or young person convicted of such offences is regrettable, unjust and clearly detrimental to their future health and wellbeing.
ACPO considers that a safeguarding approach should be at the heart of any intervention. This approach is informed by Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989, which states that within the context of any statutory intervention the welfare of the child is paramount. This approach is reinforced by Section 11 of the Children Act 2004, which places a duty on key persons and bodies to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
I understand that ACPO guidance is exactly that, guidance. However I am struggling to understand the reason for Nottinghamshire police disregarding such guidance, and actively acting against the interests of the children in their care. And they are quite explicit about the legal ramifications facing children engaging in sexting. Says their letter to schools,
“When photographs that fall within the category of an indecent image (even if taken with consent) are uploaded, reports are made by the administrators to the police. If a person is aged over 10yrs and distributes (shares – even to friends) an indecent image then they can be arrested, charged and dealt with for this offence. If they are found guilty they must then register as a sex offender.”
By threatening children with prosecution, and the additional step of having to sign the sex offenders’ register, they reduce the chances that a child who has made a mistake in sending images will step forward and tell someone. The letter goes on to say:
“An individual’s online reputation needs protecting as it stays with them for the rest of their life.”
I find it slightly crass that on the one hand the police seem concerned with a child’s online reputation, and on the other are happy to potentially destroy a child’s reputation via the use of cautions and the sex offender register. It also helps to know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Internet, as their statement that “It is crucial that children (under 18 years) understand that every internet site and social networking site is monitored by an administrator” is hugely misleading, and could easily be dismissed as scaremongering. Although GCHQ may well have access to all of these images, services such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Snapchat simply do not have administrators scanning all the images uploaded in order to report these to the police. And most kids will know this as well.
It seems a little unfair that young people are potentially facing prosecution for acts that the police wouldn’t bat an eyelid at if the perpetrators were a couple of years older. Essentially, these young people are being punished for being children. Laws prohibiting children engaging in certain acts before they’re 18 are designed to protect them, not to punish them. Retailers are fined for selling alcohol to children, rather than children receiving criminal records purely for the act of buying alcohol. The laws against the distribution of child abuse material should be a tool to mandate the removal of these images from public websites, and to prosecute the people sharing these images with the wider public.
I hope the actions of Nottinghamshire police are an outlier, and that common sense and the well-crafted ACPO guidance still holds sway across the rest of the country. By haranguing the originators of these images, there is a danger we will lose sight of the real scourge of sexting, the ‘revenge porn’ aspect. We need to create an open dialogue about how we can protect all victims of this disgusting act, regardless of their age.