Thousands of children across the United Kingdom — some as young as four years old — have been investigated by the police for “sexting” — that is, consensually sharing sexually explicit images of themselves with each other, The Guardian reports. In some cases, the children have even been given criminal records.
Laws against child pornography have been around for decades, intended to protect children from being sexually exploited and to punish those who would possess such images and/or share them with each other. However, teenagers — and in some cases preadolescent children — have been known to take sexually explicit photos of themselves and send them to each other, effectively making criminals out of them for doing something they don’t fully understand the gravity of.
In the U.S. and parts of Australia, such activity has been explicitly decriminalized, or at the very least is unlikely to be prosecuted in court. This is not the case in England and Wales, however. Taking sexually explicit photos of teenagers and/or children remains a crime there, regardless of the age of the person taking the photos. In fact, law enforcement is zealously investigating minors who have taken such pictures.
Between January 2017 and August 2019, 6,499 cases of children under 14 taking sexually explicit photos of themselves were investigated by British authorities. In a large number of those cases, those children were given criminal records.
In one case, a nine-year-old boy took a nude photo of himself and sent it to a female classmate on Facebook Messenger, an act that got him placed in a police database. In another, a nine-year-old girl was deemed an “offender” for sending photos of herself on Instagram. In another case involving a nine-year-old girl, police did welfare checks on her after she sent a nude selfie to another child. Even though she took the picture, she was listed as a “suspect” in the case.
In the vast majority of such cases — all but 30 out of over 6,000 — no criminal charges were filed because police deemed it not worthwhile to criminally probe a consensual act. However, a peculiarity of British law — known as Outcome 21 — allows police to determine that a crime has been committed but no formal action was taken. Nearly all of those cases were listed as Outcome 21.
Researcher Andy Phippen says Britain’s child pornography laws are decades old and don’t address the realities of teenagers and children in the digital age.
“The entire debate in 1978, when this legislation was introduced, was around protecting children from child sexual exploitation and now it’s being used to prosecute children,” he said.
What’s more, even though the children weren’t officially charged with crimes, their names are in criminal databases, which could hinder their job prospects as adults when their potential employers do background checks.