“Selfies” – some difficult issues

  1. There is a great deal of understandable concern about “selfies”,  in this instance commonly understood to be self-produced and self-published images of oneself in which one is nude or semi-nude, or where one is engaged in sexual activity, typically alone but not necessarily.
  2. If the person or persons in the images have reached the age of majority such  pictures may be ill-advised but they are not illegal. For legal minors, in the UK at least, the “simple” production and publication of pictures of oneself  nude or semi-nude is hugely problematic but not necessarily illegal.  Only if there is a sexualised component to the image or there is an undue focus on sexual organs do questions of legality arise.
  3. But legal or illegal if a young person creates and publishes these types of selfies, often to pass on to their boyfriend or girlfriend, the potential harm they might do is enormous. When such images have eventually gained wider currency within a school or  a community, for example as “revenge porn” after a relationship has ended,  they have not infrequently caused the child depicted major distress, sometimes leading to them committing suicide or having to uproot themselves to move to another school or neighbourhood.
  4. There have been several different surveys conducted into the extent to which young people are engaging in the production of selfies of this kind. Annoyingly there is not a universally accepted definition of what constitutes  this genre of selfie but there is widespread acknowledgement that significant numbers of youngsters seem to be doing it.
  5. The “hot question” that arose yesterday concerned the age at which such selfies can truly be said to be  selfies i.e.  self-produced and self-published?
  6. At a conference held in Microsoft’s offices in London’s Victoria the Internet Watch Foundation presented some research which had been sponsored by Microsoft.  Entitled Youth produced sexual content the IWF report appeared to say that children as young as 10 had become engaged in the self production and self publication of child sex abuse selfies.
  7. One journalist (who had clearly read the whole of the IWF research report rather than simply the press release) even spotted that children younger than 10 had somehow been drawn in. Here is what Dave Barrett wrote in the Telegraph  Children as young as seven appear naked in content on the internet which has been posted by themselves or surreptitiously recorded by a third party, the study found. (emphasis added by me)
  8. Now here’s the thing: think about all the practical steps needed to locate a place on the internet where you can or would post selfies of this nature. Think about all the practical steps you need to take to produce the sort of video content and stills which the IWF described, then upload them.
  9. Now think about what must be going on inside a 10 year old’s or a 7 year old’s head – and how the ideas and knowledge got there – which lead them to do both of the things just mentioned. Almost nobody with  a child protection background who was present in the room believed the implication of what the IWF was saying, which was that the child had full and sole agency in this matter. On the contrary several people were highly vocal in suggesting that – whatever the IWF might have observed or deduced simply from looking at the images or videos (noting that no one else appeared  to be in the room with the child at the time the images were made) what was really going on here was a form of coercion or manipulation by third parties, to say nothing of the manifest failures of parenting. Thus the IWF was quite wrong to call this material “self-produced”. It detracted from and confused an otherwise important story about some of the terrible things that are happening to obviously very young children.
  10. However, it does not end here.  The IWF had carried out a similar investigation a few years earlier (2012). Some of the same sites which were found to be hosting this type of content then were found to be hosting it again but the IWF had not taken any steps to inform the public of the names of these sites. Three years later? No change?  What possible justification can there be for not naming the sites? It was suggested that the IWF was seeking to engage with the sites and therefore naming and shaming would be counter-productive. That is a barely credible explanation and it is certainly an unacceptable one particularly as, apparently, some of the culpable sites are fee-paying members of the IWF. That means the IWF is sitting as judge and jury in its own cause.
  11. We all encourage parents, teachers and others to talk to children about the sites they are visiting but if parents do not know which sites they should specially look out for then what good is that? Microsoft and others produce tools to allow parents to monitor access to sites their children visit but, without getting too Rumsfeldian, how do you know what you don’t know? You cannot restrict access to or counsel your children about sites whose names have never crossed your line of vision.
  12. For that reason I can see no justification for the IWF sitting on information about sites which they have identified as being perilous to children. On the contrary I think the IWF is obliged to publish their names so concerned and interested parents can check.

13. At the very least the IWF should  announce that it has put every company where the material involving children was found (17 sites) on notice that they intend to check again in the near future and if the same sorts of images are found there once more their name will be put in the public domain.

About John Carr

John Carr is a member of the Executive Board of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety, the British Government's principal advisory body for online safety and security for children and young people. In the summer of 2013 he was appointed as an adviser to Bangkok-based ECPAT International. Amongst other things John is or has been a Senior Expert Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, a member of the Executive Board of the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was a appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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