Our Government thinks tech companies should help tackle sexting – but won't commit to compulsory sex education

Consistently, Theresa May and her cabinet have been quick to point out social ills and loath to see themselves as responsible for helping to correct them

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The Independent Online

Sometimes, I find myself indulging in utopian-tech wishful thinking: imagine if my iPhone could project videos onto a wall so I didn’t have to squint while watching the most unlikely people do the mannequin challenge, or you know, what if the battery life lasted for the whole day?

It seems that junior doctors’ Person of the Year winner Jeremy Hunt also indulges in a bit of digital daydreaming. Speaking to the Commons health committee about cyber-bullying, the health secretary floated the idea that if tech companies really put their mind to it, they could prevent young people from sexting one another nude pictures.

Apparently that is all it takes to constrain a teenagers libido: a parental lock. But any 14-year-old boy who has circumvented the porn parental lock on his parent’s wifi by using the 4G on his phone will testify that where there is a will, there is a way. Sending and receiving “nude selfies” is already illegal if you are under 18 and even that hasn’t stopped teenagers from doing it. You see, if you are a sexually curious raging bag of hormones you will Snapchat, Whatsapp, Instagram message, iMessage, Facebook message, Facetime, telegram, tweet, email, and/or carrier pigeon your way to exploring your sexuality. And there’s nothing Jeremy Hunt can do about it.

Parents have been trying to stop their teenagers from bonking each other for time immemorial, but there is an understandable rationale behind the latest incarnation of parental moral panic.

Until recently, the negative consequences of teenage furtive fumbling were pregnancy, STIs and classroom gossip. Now we add naked images that can be saved and used for blackmail, “sextortion”, bullying, or worse.

So as with the plain old slightly awkward missionary sex that teenagers dabble in, it isn’t going to go away anytime soon and we need to teach when it is safe, or not safe, to engage in this behaviour.

This is why the Government’s response to yesterday’s Women and Equalities Committee report to make sexual education compulsory in schools is so senseless. The Committee found that Sex and Relationship (SRE) education in schools in inadequate and there is widespread sexual harassment and violence in schools. The Government replied: “The case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery is actively under review”. Translated from Whitehall waffle that means: “We don’t plan to act on your advice anytime soon.”

Just like normal sex, teenagers are made to feel like everyone is doing it or that their partners will love them more if they do it. On the flipside, those asking for and sharing the images often aren’t aware of the implications of their actions. Once all teenagers understand this message, it will socially reproduce itself in conversations both online and offline. 

There are some amazing models for this: Rape Crisis South London sends trainers into schools and gets a room full of young people to talk about why they take these selfies, the implications of doing so and how to spot when the person you fancy doesn’t have the best intentions towards you so that when the time comes they can make their own decisions. Unfortunately, our Government seems to think it can bury its head in the sand and completely avoid acting urgently on the educational changes we need. Identifying sexting as a problem then telling tech companies to take responsibility for it is laughable. Consistently, Theresa May and her cabinet have been quick to point out social ills and loath to see themselves as responsible for helping to correct them. If that attitude doesn’t change, they can’t expect teens’ confused attitudes towards sex and sexting to change either.

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