Nude selfies – adolescents and online self-produced images
This June we finished a research project (SPIRTO), funded by the European Safer Internet Programme, that focused on the risks associated with adolescent self-produced nude or sexual images (sometimes called ‘sexting’), particularly through hand held or mobile devices. We aimed to explore the motives behind the production of these images and the consequences for the young people. A final aim of the project was to develop training materials for professionals working with young people and parents. This would seek to provide information, enable further discussion with young people about risk, and examine effective ways of sharing knowledge.
Our previous project (ROBERT) was related to this in that we had interviewed young people who had met someone online and subsequently had been sexually exploited or abused offline. Nearly all of these young people had exchanged sexual images with the person they had met.
Our review of the current research suggested that in the vast majority of cases, sexting is a process which takes place within either a (desired) romantic relationship or as a means of adolescent explorations of sexuality and identity creation. These findings correspond to the ‘experimental’ episodes of sexting identified in a typology of US law enforcement cases which was carried out by researchers in the University of New Hampshire. This typology suggested a division into two categories, which were termed ‘aggravated’ and ‘experimental’.
The aggravated incidents involved criminal or abusive elements which included adult involvement; criminal or abusive behaviour by other minors such as harmful sexual behaviour, extortion, or threats; malicious conduct that arose from interpersonal conflict; or the creation, sending or showing of images without the knowledge, or against the will of a minor who was pictured.By 2009, the majority of victims of child pornography production in the US were teenagers. Of note was that while there was little evidence of the wide online distribution of these images, in the USA, the number of arrests for the production of child pornography (a term still used in the US to describe indecent images of children (IIOC)) more than doubled between 2006 and 2009. This rise was largely associated with a substantial increase in cases involving ‘youth-produced’ sexual images. These were defined as pictures that had been taken by minors, usually of themselves, and which met the legal definitions for child pornography. In most of these cases, the images were solicited from their adolescent victims by adult offenders, and these were the people most likely to be arrested. By 2009, the majority of victims of child pornography production in the US were teenagers.
Our study was not about prevalence. There has already been a lot of research in relation to this, although comparisons across studies are difficult because surveys have been based on different age groups, types of samples, data collection methods and single-term sexting measures.In order to accurately recognise non-consensual, harmful, malicious behaviours, it is a prerequisite to understand that sexting can be consensual Instead, we were interested in the idea that in order to accurately recognise non-consensual, harmful, malicious behaviours, it is a prerequisite to understand that sexting can be consensual. Our understanding of sexting needs to recognise the complexity of sexting behaviour and be able to make a distinction between consensual and non-consensual creation and distribution of sexual images. This is necessary if it is going to inform legal, policy and education resources (Hasinoff, 2013; Powell and Henry (2014). We recognized the need for recognition of both the multifaceted nature of sexual interactions and the importance of further unpicking these interactions to determine what sexting means to young people, their reasons for sexting, the specific contexts in which the activity occurs, and the consequences that follow on from sexting experiences.
There were three stages to this project –
In the UK the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) is the hub for the International Child Sexual Exploitation image database (ICSE DB). Of the 472 cases of children identified in the UK, 45.8% were known to have self-produced sexual images, 32.8% in the context of coercive relationshipsThis database is managed by Interpol and provides a powerful intelligence and investigative tool that allows specialised investigators to share information with colleagues on a global basis. CEOP is part of the UK National Crime Agency and its operations faculty also incorporates the United Kingdom’s only national victim identification program, which works solely to focus on identifying child victims of online abuse and to support investigators in sharing any intelligence that can be gathered from seized images.
472 cases were identified from the data base by CEOP as representing the total number of children identified through UK police investigation whose data had been submitted to Interpol. Each case represented an individual child who had been identified. A child was defined as someone under the age of 18 years. Of the 472 cases of children identified in the UK-claimed entries into the ICSE DB, 45.8% were known to have self-produced sexual images (through mobile phones or web cameras), 32.8% in the context of coercive relationships. The full report is available from http://www.spirto.health.ed.ac.uk/research/quantitative-analysis-icse-db.
The Preliminary findings of the initial analysis including 350 cases to June 2013, published in SPIRTO’s News letter (February 2014) can be seen in the following infographic…
We interviewed 51 young people from the UK and Sweden who had self-identified as sending nude or nearly nude images of themselves to someone else. Our qualitative analysis suggested that these images were created in a range of different contexts and they fulfilled a variety of functions. It was also clear that for some of the young people there was clear evidence of coercion and that there was evidence of online grooming. The initial findings were published in the newsletter in 2015 and are summarized in this infographic. The full report can be found at http://www.spirto.health.ed.ac.uk/research/findings.
SPIRTO’s objective was to build on existing knowledge, along with what was learned from the young people interviewed, to generate educational materials, including a film, concerning the risks of converged technologies, and mobile connectivity in particular, and to assess the evidence of the impact of these materials on knowledge, skills and attitudes. The development of the animated films Nude Selfies: What Parents and Carers need to know was based on emergent findings from the research phase of the SPIRTO project. It was also informed by a literature review of existing evidence and an evaluative review of existing educational materials related to the topic of self- taken images. Findings from these three strands formed the basis for a specification for the new resource for parents and carers.
The film and workshop materials are available for free at http://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents/Nude-Selfies-What-parents-and-carers-need-to-know/
We also delivered the workshops across three countries (UK, Sweden and Germany). The full workshop report is available at http://www.spirto.health.ed.ac.uk/resources/training-material
Our previous research had shown that the ability to create and share digital content has increased the availability of child abuse images, a proportion of which is created by young people in the context of both coercive and non-coercive relationships. We hope that at least some of you will agree to join in with this research. We are confident that with your help we will fill a gap in both knowledge and resources.This poses considerable resource challenges to law enforcement and creates ambiguity as to what constitutes a proportionate response. Our research indicates image-creation as part of developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour, but it can be easily exploited by others. The assessment of the SPIRTO workshops with carers/practitioners indicated a significant positive impact on attitudes and knowledge but practitioners felt less confident about their ability to identify and manage these cases.
Our new project includes young people, law enforcement and child protection workers to develop evidence-based guidelines for practitioners that can be widely disseminated to inform a more consistent, victim-centred approach to management. The research partners include Police Scotland, NCA-CEOP Command, Norfolk Constabulary and the Marie Collins Foundation. We hope that at least some of you will agree to join in with this research. We are confident that with your help we will fill a gap in both knowledge and resources and that the project will be inclusive of youth, respectful of adolescent agency and the right to take developmental risks, but which is supportive of the rights of young people for protection where others seek to abuse and exploit them. The guidelines will enable professional services to deal with online child sexual exploitation in a more sensitive way, reducing harm for those involved.
The video at the top of this article is the first of four SPIRTO animated films – ‘Nude Selfies: What Parents and Carers need to know’
The rest can be found on the Thinkuknow website – https://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents/Nude-Selfies-What-parents-and-carers-need-to-know/