Don't criminalise kids for mutual 'sexting', says NI child expert
A child protection expert has said under-18s should not be prosecuted for consensually swapping sex images.
Jim Gamble hit out at the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), which opposes moves to decriminalise the distribution of sexualised pictures, known as 'sexting'.
He said a change in the law was needed to stop young people getting criminal convictions.
Sexting involves explicit images being shared on social media, and is a criminal offence.
But Mr Gamble, who has urged the Assembly to support a change in the law, argued: "This has to be about protecting children.
"When we created the current law the intention was to protect young people, not criminalise them."
His criticism came after figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph revealed only two out of almost 50 cases of under-18s swapping sex images led to prosecutions over a six-month period this year.
A further 13 incidents were dealt with by cautions.
The PPS argues decriminalising self-images puts teenagers who send them at risk of further abuse, while the status quo can help keep young people out of the criminal justice system.
But Mr Gamble, a former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, called for the law to be changed to prevent young people gaining convictions.
"It is about making the law more intelligent," he said.
"If a child shares an image of themselves, by mutual consent with another child, that's an error of judgment and should be treated as such."
Now director of the Belfast-based How To Be Safer Online group, Mr Gamble added: "However, if a young person - under 18 - receives an image from another child and then maliciously shares it or sends an image to another without mutual consent, indecently exposing themselves, then an offence requiring investigation would be committed.
"The key is understanding the unintended consequences criminalisation has."
A child who has shared and lost control of an image will often feel suicidal, he said.
He added: "This is not a time for the law to act as an impediment to a child doing the one thing that can help - coming forward.
"If we decriminalise it the children will come forward to get help and fewer will self-harm or commit suicide, which is what happens when the child is left with no hope when they have shared an image."