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Sexting: Not a playground for teens

Andrea
Martin-Swaby

Monday, October 09, 2017

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When you send a sexually explicit image of yourself via the Internet, do you really have any control over its further dispatch? With the click of a button the image is introduced to the World Wide Web. Could this pose significant risks for all who engage in sexting? The simple answer may be yes, but what is most frightening is the fact that a similar click of the button will not result in the disappearance of the image from the Internet.

This critical fact must be borne in mind by all who choose to sext. That said, let us consider the implications for teenagers who transmit such images, and the recipients. For teens below the age of eighteen years, in addition to the risk of further dissemination, it must be emphasised that the possession and distribution of such an image may constitute child pornography.

Sexting, what is it?

So, what is this thing called “sexting”? 'Sext' was formed from a contraction of sex and text. The first published use of the word was in a 2005 article in an Australian Sunday Telegraph magazine. It is described as the exchange of sexual images, and or messages, and creating, sharing and forwarding sexually suggestive, nude, or nearly nude images through mobile phones and the Internet. You need not venture too deeply into the realm of imagination to visualise the type of data which could constitute a 'sext'.

Technology: The Facilitator

The question is what has propelled this new phenomenon? The simple answer is technology. Technology has facilitated the easy creation, exchange and display of visual images. For this very reason sexting is made easy with the use of smart devices equipped with even real-time capabilities for transmitting data.

So much has changed since the year 1995 when the first smartphone made its debut; the world has never been the same. These devices are constantly being redesigned to improve connectivity and communication. Consequently, pre-1995 was an entirely different era for mankind due to the rapid transformation in communication methods and mediums.

We have come a far way in photographic processing. In the not too distant past, it was not as easy to develop a photograph, moreover to transmit. Photographs were developed from film by chemical processes. They were then usually transmitted via post.

However, today, there is real-time transmission of information and visual images via the use of Snapchat, Whats a pp, and Instagram. These messages and images can be sent using mobile devices, tablets, smartphones, laptops; in fact, by any device that allows you to share media and messages.

The Vulnerable Group — Adolescents

When we consider sexting, regard must be had to a category of individuals who are avid users of the technology and participate in social media. Their vulnerability cannot be ignored. Research has shown that children (persons below the age of 18 years) do engage in sexting with their peers, and even adults.

First and foremost, it must be borne in mind that the sexual image of a child constitutes child pornography. The law is unambiguous in so far as categorising as child pornography any visual representation that depicts the genitals, breasts, pubic area or anal region of a child. It also goes further to forbid any written material that counsels sexual activity with a child.

Therefore, sexting is illegal when it comes to children. It is therefore important for individuals to be aware of this, and to be guided accordingly.

The Child Pornography Prevention Act criminalises the possession, distribution, and production of these images or written material. It must be further noted that these offences carry maximum penalties of up to 15 years' imprisonment, which may be viewed as a testament to the seriousness of this offence.

Who can be charged?

Any person who has reached the age of culpability can be charged for possession and distribution of child pornography. For easy understanding, it means that a 13- or 14-year-old can be charged for these offences. So can an adult who has such an image in his/her possession, or transmits such an image or message.

When all is said and done, it must be emphasised that our children must be advised that this activity is wrong, and even culpable. In this National cyber awareness month, let us be vigilant in protecting our children and encouraging them to refrain from engaging in such activities via the Internet.

Andrea Martin-Swaby is a deputy director of public prosecutions and head of the Cybercrime & Digital Forensics Unit in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

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