Sexting, Jeremy Hunt and the ban that never was
Image: Warren Wong on Unsplash
‘Jeremy Hunt proposes ban on sexting for under-18s,’ ran the headline from The Guardian.
The health secretary was giving evidence at the Commons health committee on suicide prevention and had proposed that the makers of social media apps should use the technology available to them to block ‘sexting’ images for users under 18.
‘I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem,’ he told the committee.
‘Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.’
Hunt also called on social media providers to block instances of cyber bullying on their platforms, calling for them to ‘actively pursue’ introducing technology that could spot it and stop it.
Hunt's comments were interesting in two ways.
First, if you’re the person responsible for government mental health provision for children and young people that’s been widely criticised for underfunding, it’s hardly surprising you then try to shift the blame onto others for the growing problems in this area. We can see what you’re doing there, Jeremy.
But, more interesting, was the reaction to his comments, because it demonstrated just how few people seem to realise that sexting under 18 is already banned.
Of all the reports I read in response to his comments, none pointed out that it has been illegal for some time for anyone under 18 to send sexual images of themselves to others – and for anyone to send sexual images of under 18s to anyone else, including the person in the picture themselves.
And while recent police guidance acknowledges that it would be wrong in many cases to prosecute young people who have sent or received consensual sexual images of other young people, it is still technically a criminal offence.
So, Jeremy Hunt isn’t calling for a ban – he’s asking the companies who provide the software that allows images to be shared to take responsibility for stopping those images. And that is a very different thing.
‘Morally, this is a huge invasion into the privacy of teenagers,’ one anti-censorship activist was quoted as saying in Business Insider. ‘Sexting has become a normal part of relationships for young people.’
But while many people would say ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ to both those points, they are irrelevant.
Far be it from me to try to prevent anyone from taking a pop at Jeremy Hunt, but the real issue here isn’t political smoke screening by an under-fire politician, but the fact that so many people don’t realise the current state of the law over sexting.
Young people need to be aware of the law as it stands so they don’t fall foul of it. They may not end up with a criminal record if they're discovered to have shared a topless – or bottomless – picture of themselves with their boyfriend or girlfriend, but they could easily end up in the embarrassing position of their school, their parents and others, including the police, knowing about it.
Parents need to be aware of the law so they can talk to their children about it and warn them.
Teachers ARE aware of the law, with updated guidelines recently published to help them deal with instances in a common sense way. But not all of them are able to talk to their pupils about it because PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) or SRE (Sex & Relationships) or RSE (Relationships & Sex education if you'd rather it was that way round) still isn’t compulsory in all secondary schools in the UK.
Rather than taking a chance to mock Jeremy Hunt, let’s concentrate our energies on putting pressure on education secretary Justine Greening to make PSHE mandatory in all schools – and the discussion of all aspects of online safety, including sexting and cyberbullying, a compulsory part of that.
In response to the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s report on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Schools, the government said that the ‘case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery is actively under review.’
Let’s hope it is. Because even if the technology Jeremy Hunt referred to does exist (and we all know the trouble Facebook has had distinguishing pictures of breastfeeding and breast cancer survivor’s mastectomy scars from pornographic images) that’s not the whole solution.
As with most things in life, you can ban and block and twiddle with the tech to your heart’s content to stop people doing things, but nothing beats education to change potentially harmful behaviours.
It’s over to you, Justine Greening.
Update: on 1 March 2017, Justine Greening announced plans to make sex and relationship education compulsory in all secondary schools, and relationships education compulsory in all primary schools. Pupils will be taught the new curriculum from September 2019.
 ‘Making, possessing and distributing any imagery of someone under 18 which is ‘indecent’ is illegal. This includes imagery of yourself if you are under 18. The relevant legislation is contained in the Protection of Children Act 1978 (England and Wales) as amended in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (England and Wales).’
A version of this blog appeared on Parentzone.org.uk