Hey, policeman, leave those kids alone

The BBC has published new figures claiming that, in the last three years, nearly 400 children under the age of 12 have been ‘spoken to’ by police officers for sexting, including a five-year-old who was spoken to by officers from the Durham Constabulary in 2016. This follows an earlier report from the BBC, published in 2015, which claimed that more than 5,500 alleged sext crimes were reported to the police between 2012 and 2015.

These revelations should make us question the current panic over sexting. Yes, children sharing explicit photographs of themselves privately can lead to such photos being distributed – this is a risk that should be managed. But this criminalisation of children reflects a perverse reading of the law. It is a crime to distribute explicit images of young people. But should it really be treated as a crime when young people are themselves sharing these images? Surely this is something better dealt with by parents and teachers, rather than the boys in blue.

The police were quick to point out to the BBC that ‘they don’t criminalise children’, meaning they do not seek to charge them with criminal offences. This may be so, but asking kids to explain embarrassing details of their lives to a police officer is criminalising them in all but name.

Furthermore, involving the police only makes children unwilling to trust the adults around them. If they are scared of being shopped to the police, children are much less likely to tell a teacher or family member when sexting goes wrong. The fact that the police are increasingly called upon to deal with what is essentially bad behaviour is deeply disturbing.

The truth is, police involvement can lead to criminalisation. According to recent BBC reports, at least one child under 12 has been cautioned for sexting. A caution is a formal reprimand, marked on a criminal record. Some cautions can be removed from young people’s records, but this is a lengthy process. There is likely to be many more children who have been cautioned for these offences than the figures reveal.

If there is a problem with sexting in schools, the right people to deal with it are parents and teachers. This is especially true when very young children are involved. It is sad that the police are becoming more and more involved in such cases. No five-year-old should be treated by the police as a suspect. It’s time we took a rational approach to sexting, one which protects children and encourages informal resolution over the involvement of the authorities.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked and author of Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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