By Charles Sweeney, CEO, Bloxx
Evidentially, celebrities are no longer the only ones choosing to record and share their sexual encounters. A new report from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) shows an increasing amount of so-called adult content is actually being produced by teenagers and children. The report shows that young people – many of them under the legal age of consent – are using laptops and webcams in their homes to make a video with the intention of sharing them with at least one other party.
The study of what the IWF calls Youth Produced Sexual Content also shows that 90 per cent of the videos and images assessed in the research had been harvested from their original sites and redistributed elsewhere. Celebrities are adept at exploiting the notoriety that comes from their amorous adventures. Children are simply being exploited.
This is why the work of organisations like the IWF is so important. This report blows away some of the assumptions that we make about teenagers and their emerging sex lives. It isn’t all about sexting, selfies and stranger danger. The majority of the video recordings and images assessed for the report show no evidence of coercion. The abuse happens later when the tape is hacked and shared.
The old cliché that teenagers know more about technology than their parents or teachers could ever hope to is a vast over-simplification – although that doesn’t mean there isn’t a grain of truth in it. But what this report shows us is that even these so-called digital natives don’t seem to fully understand that an image online is no longer a private image.
To date, much of the conversation about protecting children online has focused on filtering out adult content, and preventing damaging material from entering a network, whether it is in the home or a school setting. But it has been clear for some time that the focus on filters is flawed. Mobile devices remain a problem, for example; and any teenager with the basic skills to circumnavigate a filter by using a proxy will inevitably find those skills in great demand.
That’s not to say that firewalls and filters are not an essential part of the defence. They are. The most successful filters are the specialist versions used by many schools, which are much harder for tech-savvy teenagers to get round. But they are not digital child-minders. They are only one element in the educational and parental toolkit. For those still in doubt, the IWF report provides the most compelling reason to date for combining technological barriers with relevant Internet Safety and Responsible Use education (ISRU).
We need to get better at helping teenagers manage the very real digital risks they face, as well as the digital benefits. The following points form the solid foundation of an effective ISRU education:
- Developing an understanding of the digital footprint, the indelible trail of a person’s online activity, and how it can be used for good as well as bad.
- Changing the mantra from ‘keep your profiles private’ to ‘there is no such thing as privacy.’ Information can be shared by anyone: trusted friends, friends of friends and anonymous hackers.
- Encouraging respect for another person’s information and privacy, whether it’s online or offline.
- Grounding ISRU education in some universal principles of safe online behaviour, rather than the specifics of individual technologies which will soon be out of date.
- Developing strong digital literacy skills that enable young people to navigate the online world with confidence – even as it continues to change.
- Encouraging the belief that all users of the internet and technology have a role in creating a better and safer digital world.
ISRU education can be particularly helpful when a ‘whole school approach’ is adopted. Involving staff, parents and carers, and the wider community in the discussion can help ‘normalise’ the discussion. It can also go some way to address the so-called Facebook factor – the notable exit of teenagers from sites that are popular with adults and their population of less transparent social networks instead.
But whatever the approach, we need to talk about 21st century sex. The technology is readily available – and we can’t stop teenagers experimenting. What we can do is make sure they’re doing it safely. We owe it to them and their future selves to get this right.