Why Trying To Ban Under 18s From Sexting Is Wrong

Illustration by Emily Turner
So a politician just tried to ban sexting for anyone under the age of 18. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt was speaking to a committee on youth mental health when he proposed that social media companies stop the exchange of explicit images and texts between teenagers. They should use their magical technology, he thinks, to identify naughty images and stop them from being sent. If you think that sounds a little odd and maybe even technologically impossible, that’s because it is. Mr Hunt is rolling out this public policy idea with the authority of a middle-aged dad who’s just found out what an emoji is. Here it is straight from him: “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things. For example, I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18, if that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract. Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted. “I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening? I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.” Perhaps, for a start, Mr Hunt could have asked these questions of an expert. Then he may have found out that his plan is not only morally fallible, but technologically unsound. Alas, Mr Hunt and his fellow politicians do not make a habit of listening to experts. They recently assembled a group of academics and teachers for an enquiry into Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). The panel’s strong recommendation was to implement compulsory SRE in schools, but politicians have declined to do that and refused funding for the program. That is to say, rather than making ill-considered suggestions about social media, the government could be empowering young people with information so they could safely make their own sexual decisions.

We need to understand the motivations behind sexting and create safe spaces to talk about it, not outright ban it

Professor Andy Phippin, a professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, gave evidence at the latest government enquiry into SRE. He is disturbed by the government’s inaction and misdirection. “We need to understand the motivations behind sexting and create safe spaces to talk about it, not outright ban it,” he said. “These comments from Jeremy Hunt come the day after the government refused to implement Sex and Relationships Education. It’s the fourth time they’ve conducted an enquiry and then ignored its advice, refusing to do anything. They slap their hands and say someone needs to do something. It’s they who need to do something.” Without proper SRE, teenagers are left to fend for themselves when it comes to technology, ethics, sex and the law. They’re left to set their own standards of behaviour and Google anything they’re too embarrassed to bring up with their parents. Many of them don’t even know that sharing explicit images of themselves is illegal under the 1978 Child Protection Act. An act, by the way, that hasn’t been updated since the invention of the internet. “Just talk to me about the number of 13-year-old lads who think the way to ask someone out is with a picture of their genitals,” says Andy. “Can we blame them for that behaviour, when they’re getting their sexual education from their peers? We need to talk to them about issues like consent, respect and boundaries – but kids are simply not being taught about any of that. It’s jaw dropping that we are still at this point.” Professor Jessica Ringrose, lecturer at the institute of education at the University College London and co-chair of the Gender and Education Association, agrees that Jeremy Hunt’s comments were deplorable. “I think it’s the government and the department of education offloading what is their responsibility,” she said. “Somehow now it’s social media’s responsibility? When did that happen? The levels of abuse and gender related violence in schools are horrific and yet, things like wellbeing, healthy relationships, consent and sexual health are not being taught there. They’re being sidelined. How many people have to get hurt and how many law suits have to happen before we give young people sexual literacy and education?"

Similarly to pornography, criminalising this doesn't make the problem go away, it simply brushes it under the carpet

So why is a politician advocating the outright ban of sexting between teenagers, when he could be enabling their education? How, in good conscience, could the government decline to fund SRE programs across the country? Jeremy Hunt and co. are not only ignoring experts, academics and teachers here; they’re ignoring teenagers as well. If Jeremy Hunt wants to protect young people from the dangers of the internet, he needs to understand them first. To do that, he could try talking to some real-life teenagers. There are plenty of perfectly articulate young people he could speak to – Rosa Tully, for instance. Rosa is the founder of Highgate Wood School Feminist Society, a Plan International UK advisor and intern at the Gender and Education Association. She’s 18 years old. “Blanket policies of this kind don't work,” she said. “This is a cultural problem, which can't just be 'banned'. Similarly to pornography, criminalising this doesn't make the problem go away, it simply brushes it under the carpet. It also raises the question of how they [the government] are going to enforce such a plan - surely they will have to be granted permission to view every Snapchat or message that gets sent. Surely it makes more sense to educate young people first, about the risks, the legalities and the political context that underpins 'sexting culture'. Additionally, it would seem that young women will bear the brunt of the process - as it is more often that young women are the ones sending pictures (often pressured to do so out of fear of being labelled a 'prude'). What needs to occur is compulsory, comprehensive sex education in schools across the country, taught by people who are confident, trained properly, with the necessary resources to equip young people with the knowledge they need to practise healthy relationships - which includes online and social media content.” Can someone fax that to Jeremy Hunt’s PA?

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