Last month the governor of the US state of New Mexico signed into law a proposal that allows teenagers in that state to exchange naked images without fear of a damaging criminal record.
The new law allows teens aged 14 to 18 to engage in consensual ‘sexting’ with no fear of facing child pornography charges or having their future job prospects affected.
In September last year many British news sources reported the story of a 14 year-old boy from the north of England who had been placed on a police intelligence database for sending a naked selfie of himself to his girlfriend. Because the boy was only 14, this was recorded as a crime of making and distributing an indecent image of a child, despite the fact that the ‘child’ in this particular instance was the boy himself.
The boy, who for legal reasons was not named in the news stories, took a photograph of himself in his bedroom and then sent it to a girl at his school using an app on his mobile phone called Snapchat. Snapchat is particularly popular for the sending of sexy selfies because it promises that the image sent will disappear ten seconds after it is viewed. However, there are now other phone apps on the market that can help the receiver capture and save that image – as the female classmate in this case did. She then shared with her friends, who in turn shared it across in the school, and it eventually came to the attention of a police officer based there.
Speaking to the Today programme, the boy’s mother explained that she had been told her son might be on the police database for up to ten years, and the incident might come up if a potential employer made an enhanced disclosure check when the boy applied for jobs in the future. More immediately, the boy had been completely humiliated by the event and was aware that people at his school still had the image stored on their phones. Interestingly, had the boy and girl been over the age of 18, the case would have been seen as one of revenge porn – the sharing of private, sexual materials, such as images of another person, without their consent with the intention of causing them embarrassment or distress – and it would have been the girl who was in trouble.
The simple fact is that sexting – the creation and sending of sexual images via mobile phones or social-networking services like Facebook and Instagram – is popular amongst teenagers. In November, the government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) warned that sending and receiving nude pictures and sexually explicit texts is now the ‘norm’ amongst UK teens. Flirting and experimenting with sexual identity has always been part of adolescence, and the advent of the internet has merely provided a new venue for interactions that used to be undertaken face-to-face or through the passing of notes or messages via best friends.
Its very popularity means that it is very difficult for a teen who wants to fit in to refuse to join in. A report prepared for the NSPCC in 2012 [
] suggested that, while e-safety campaigns have had a positive impact on children’s interaction with strangers online, it is actually their interaction with their peers that we should be concerned about now. Both boys and girls can be pressured by classmates, boy/girlfriends and potential partners to send them a sexually explicit image – a new twist on the old “If you really loved me, you would”. According to the NSPCC report the pressure is particularly intense on girls, who have to walk the tightrope between conforming to the pressure of particular sexual expectations without becoming derided as a ‘slut’. And of course both sexes feel pressured to make sure their body looks ‘fit’, part of the growing pressure on teens to look and act in a certain way in order to ‘fit in’
The wider problem is that these photographs do not just stay in the hands of the person to whom they are sent. They can be shared with friends, then around the school, and then – through the power of the Internet – much, much farther away, and there is no way of getting them back or deleting them. CEOP warns that it sees at least one serious case with child protection implications a day.
Could the New Mexico law happen here? Given the backlash against the new law in New Mexico, I doubt any minister will be considering changing the law in the near future. But at the same time we do have to get to grips with the realities of the situation. Teens are sexting, and at present they are in danger of unnecessary criminalisation if a school chooses to report such incidents to the police. As a parent of a teen myself I know the knife-edge teenagers walk as far as popularity and conforming is concerned – the pressure that even the most confident teen is under to ‘fit in’. It is important that we are aware of these new challenges our teens face in their daily lives and help them negotiate boundaries they are comfortable with in a supportive and non-judgemental way. As the parents of teenagers we need to seriously discuss the current legal position on naked selfies and explain to our children that thoughtless posts may lead to years of embarrassment and shaming – even by people we have not even met yet – and that they may affect our future life-choices.
Bio: Sarah Pedersen
Professor Sarah Pedersen is a member of faculty in Robert Gordon University’s department of Communication, Marketing and Media.
Her expertise focus on communication through a variety of forms of media, including newspapers and electronic media such as scholarly journals and blogs, and covers both historical and modern, cutting-edge technologies.
The main theme characterising her research is communication through the written word particularly in the areas of:
- Computer-mediated communication
- Women’s use of media
- History of publishing
In particular, she has published on mothers online, Mumsnet, blogging, women during the First World War and the Suffragettes.