New sexting challenges – experiences from Denmark

A recent research report, deSHAME, Digital Exploitation and Sexual Harassment Among Minors in Europe, found that 8 per cent of 13-17 year olds in Denmark, Hungary and the UK had shared nude/nearly nude images of other people that they knew without their permission but 41 per cent had seen people sharing nude/nearly nude images of someone that they knew. Similarly, the research found that 27 per cent had witnessed young people sharing images or videos of someone they know doing sexual acts in the last year.

So, while not universal, the sharing of this type of image is by no means uncommon. The question of how to deal with it is complex and governments and law enforcement agencies around the world are grappling to find the most effective way to address the problem. Indeed, there is a growing argument from some which is suggesting that young people should perhaps be told how to sext safely. After all, they argue, we talk about how to have safe sex, so why not safe sexting, particularly when the messages telling young people not to do it are falling on deaf ears if we are to believe the research reports.

In many countries, the sending of a "sexual" image of someone under the age of 18 is a serious criminal offence as the images are often deemed to be child sexual abuse images (or indecent images of children). Such crimes carry serious penalties but, in many countries, law enforcement agencies recognise the difference between teenagers who have shared images and an adult who has a sexual interest in children sharing them, and many are keen to ensure that the system does not criminalise young people who have made a mistake. Consequently, the recent story from Denmark of over 1,000 young people all facing criminal charges for sharing a video of two fifteen-year olds having sex has generated a lot of debate around the world.

The article from Reuters explains that Danish police were tipped off by Facebook about the video that had been shared by 1,004 young people. When Facebook is made aware of such content on its platform it removes it and refers the incident to Interpol who, in this case, passed the information back to the Danish police. The Danish police have now charged all 1,004 young people and a number of cases were tried in court last week to help set a precedent. One 20-year-old man was given a 30-day suspended prison sentence. He will have a criminal record and also be placed on the sex offenders register for at least ten years meaning he will not be able to get a job which involves working with children and young people.

As you might imagine, there are some very different views about the Danish approach. Some clearly think that these were just young people doing what young people do – acting on impulse, thinking that something was funny and not considering the consequences for themselves or the others involved. Some have suggested that as the video was shared so widely, it is impossible to apportion blame to any individual – others disagree.

What is interesting is that there is a significant feeling that actually this was the right response. What the young people did wasn't acceptable in any way; it showed a lack of respect for the two people in the video and saying that this was just young people being young people and messing around and not realising the consequences of their actions is not okay. The more we make excuses, the more likely this sort of thing will continue. Lau Thygesen, a police inspector with North Zealand Police who is the lead investigator on the case said "We've taken the case very seriously as it has had serious consequences for those involved because of how the material has been spread. And it must be stopped."
Superintendent Flemming Kjærside, who leads Denmark's cyber-related sexual offences unit, said: "The most important thing is the victims ... they will suffer from this for the rest of their lives." He also noted that this type of thing is a problem in many countries but that no other countries are making such a big effort to tackle it.

In 2016, Jessie Hunt a youth health sector support worker in Australia published a position paper: Beyond sexting: consent and harm minimisation in digital sexual cultures. In it she suggests that resources to tackle sexting are not effective and offers a set of adapted principles for applying harm reduction to digital sex education. More recently, the Belgian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) has launched, an online portal for everyone who has questions about sexting. It includes a policy enhancing tool which allows schools to develop a tailor-made policy to prevent sexting from going wrong (as well as helping them to handle it when it does go wrong).

No doubt the media interest in the Danish case will continue – what is clear is that we need to find more effective ways to deal with the challenges and perhaps acknowledge that, up to this point, we haven't got it quite right. A recent blog by Lykke Møller Kristensen notes that, as a society, we gave young people a smartphone and the ability to do whatever they wanted with it – and now we are punishing them when they get it wrong. As parents, teachers and adults we have not been there enough for our children and young people to support them – we take it for granted that when things go wrong they can figure it out for themselves! As our colleagues from the Danish helpline, Center for Digital Paedagogik, pointed out, it is important that we use this event to grow wiser - the debate and discussion must continue.

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