If teens could see the catastrophic consequences of sexting, they'd stop... but then they're just teens
Facebook case involving NI girl has raised issues about vulnerability of young people online, says Sarah Caden
Last week in Belfast, Facebook came to an out-of-court settlement with a 14-year-old girl who took a case against the social media giant over the appearance of her naked image on a so-called "shame" page. It was a landmark case, in which she had sought damages for misuse of private information, negligence and breach of the Data Protection Act. In court, the girl's legal team likened the experience to child abuse.
Reading several articles on this landmark win, which is expected to open the floodgates to similar cases worldwide, I found myself desperate to ascertain something. The word "blackmail" was used. There was mention of "revenge" and "revenge porn".
This child was 14. As a parent of a daughter only four years younger, one of the most disturbing facts of all this was that the photo existed at all.
Of course, I am aware that sexting is commonplace among teens, but it still has the power to shock. Not just that it's the done thing for girls, in particular, to send pictures to boys as a means of courting romance, but that we seem to have failed to convince them that this has not only short-term consequences, but potentially long-term implications.
Facebook took down the image of the girl in the Belfast case once it was reported to them as offensive, but that didn't stop the damage being done. Nor does it stop that image being disseminated by other media. It's out there.
With sexting, there are two issues. One is the fact of underage children and young adults giving away images of their bodies - most often as a means of securing affection, or romantic commitment.
Then there is the fact that they are giving it away via an entirely uncontrollable medium, where, should a romance go awry, or should they share with someone of ill intent, it turns into a means of blackmail. It turns from what is considered an intimate transaction into a tool of aggression.
If teenagers truly comprehended the long-term, massive-scale implications of sexting, they wouldn't do it. But they are teenagers and teenagers don't think that way. They never have and they never will.
But no teenagers before today's have been presented with a world where damage is done at the tap of a button - the click of a mouse. Quickly done and impossible to undo.
Look at Meghan Markle last week, shutting down all of her social media as she prepares to marry into the Royal Family. She may have shut it all down (probably because all that soul-baring, oversharing and posing for the camera is unseemly for a future princess), but it's still out there. "Meghan's best bits" were all over the internet all week and will live on there - contorted, half-dressed yoga poses, pics from her first wedding day, we're-so-crazy snaps.
It's not sexting, but it's not fitting, either, and must cause the courtiers, who have never had to deal with a very modern member of the family, to wonder at how to handle a past that won't disappear.
We were all young once. We all engaged in behaviours and transactions and experiments and adventures that we look back at and cringe over, or wonder how we didn't end up in trouble, or how we're even here at all. We all did things we might regret. But, mostly, we got away with them and they exist only in our memories.
Now, though, if you are a teenager and you send a naked picture of yourself to someone, anyone, it's around forever. Not only for the person to whom you sent it, but for anyone, or anything, they sent it to.
And when I say "if you are a teenager and you send a naked picture", the "if" comes with a pinch of salt. They're not all doing it, but a great proportion of them are - and consider it to be normal. They don't necessarily like doing it, but it has become the done thing. And don't kid yourself that they aren't.
Only this month, a study was published in the US, based on a pool of 500 teenage girls, all of whom had sexted at some time. Two-thirds said that they sent naked pictures in response to demands from boys. The fact is that it isn't "bold" girls and boys who are doing the sexting - either giving, or receiving - it's ordinary girls and boys. On both sides, they do it because they believe it's how sex and romance work, or because everyone else is doing it, or because their friends are doing it, or because they think it will make them more loved, more accepted, more attractive.
Teenagers don't think about consequences the way adults do. Think back again to when you were a teenager. Remember all the stuff you did? Accept how relieved you are that none of it is on record?
Teenagers don't think of consequences, but we have a duty to remind them and to protect them.
Which is why the counsel of the girl in Belfast were justified on comparisons with child abuse. To fail to protect this child from that image of herself, you could say she was as good as abused.
As fully grown adults, we need to impress upon our kids that online activity might seem like something controllable, but really it is not. And perhaps one way to start is to call a halt to giving them phones at such a young age.
Some of the children sexting are as young as 11. You think that's too young to sext? It's too young to have a smartphone, isn't it?
Most 11-year-olds still get brought to school by an adult. Most don't have a key to the front door. We deny them huge everyday responsibilities, but then we give them the key to the internet, via a phone, and leave them off to play with it like it was a toy. And we leave them wide open to who knows what.
We leave them open to what that 14-year-old in the Belfast case went through, in fact.