He’s a teenager,
not a sex criminal

If you want an insight into the bizarre world of modern child protection, look no further than the case of the 14-year-old boy who has been reported to the police for ‘producing an indecent image’ of, er, himself.

The boy, who lives in the north of England, took a nude shot and sent it to a girl he fancied via Snapchat. That app, popular among our depraved youth, is supposed to delete pictures within 10 seconds – except if, like pretty much everyone who uses Snapchat, you’ve hooked up your phone so you can screenshot the pic before it disappears.

The girl circulated the picture around school and he was pulled in by the school’s attached police officer. While he was not formally arrested or charged, he was told the details would be stored against his name for at least 10 years – and they may even flash up if he had to complete an advanced DBS (formerly CRB) check later in life.

This case was clearly handled badly. The boy was encouraged to confess to what amounts to a serious criminal offence before his parents were even called in. And there’s no clear reason why this had to be a criminal matter in the first place. How, exactly, can you commit a crime against yourself? And, while the idea of pimpled teens ‘sexting’ each other might make us cringe, it’s little more than a new, digitised means through which they take their first, awkward steps into the world of sex and romance. His mother, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said he was being ‘at best naive’ and at worst a ‘teenager’. It’s hard to disagree.

The real issue here is the intense pressure schools are now under to tackle headline child-protection issues and, in the process, negotiate a tangled web of legislation. The recent criminalisation of so-called revenge porn – in which people circulate naughty pics of others in order to humiliate them – is a case in point. In the media, teenagers are often presented as those most vulnerable to this phenomenon. But, by a quirk of legislation, people can only be victims of revenge porn if they are over 18. Had he been a few years older, the boy would have been the victim, rather than perpetrator.

Kids’ forays into sex and relationships always throw up problems for schools. But they need to be dealt with using judgement and care. When teenagers are starting to fumble behind the bike sheds what they are doing is sometimes technically illegal – especially if those involved are on opposite sides of the age of consent. But there is an understanding, both in law and in society at large, that the vast majority of these are not proper prosecutable offences. If you went about subjecting all of these issues to official procedure, then there’d be no one left to teach.

But in a time of paranoia and fear with regard to children, sex and relationships, commonsense – and trusting teachers to exercise it – goes out the window. Not only do you end up enforcing laws that you needn’t, but you actually invent new ones hastily. Revenge porn was criminalised earlier this year, yet it was subject to little real public debate or scrutiny. I’d bet there’s a lot more dopey teens out there who are unaware that what they’re doing is illegal.

This was a ridiculous story. If kids send saucy snaps to one another they need a talking to and/or a slap, not a visit from plod. But if we don’t trust teens to make their own romantic mistakes, and teachers to punish them when they do it on their watch, then this won’t be the last time that a would-be Romeo finds himself with a criminal record.

Tom Slater is assistant editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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