While sending provocative images of oneself may initially seem to be just a bit of fun, the legal repercussions for those under the age of 18 can be very real, and in some cases has even led to child pornography charges.
“The person in the picture is the important thing,” explains lawyer Julianne Elliott, responsible for creating educational material at Legal Aid NSW.
“The Commonwealth law [regarding child pornography] is when it’s to do with the phone or the internet, and there’s a picture of somebody having sex, of somebody showing their private parts – so their genitals, breasts or bum, or of a sexy pose, and the person in the picture is under 18.”
It was in 2009 that a group of youth workers brought the matter to Legal Aid NSW’s attention, following concerns about some of the young people in their care.
“They’d asked us if we do any workshops and have any materials, but we had nothing at all because it was just an emerging issue,” says Ms Elliott.
But it didn’t take long to confirm that further education on the matter of sharing explicit material was required.
Though she admits that sexting is “not the best idea in the world”, Ms Elliott identifies that there’s certainly a difference between teenagers agreeing to share pictures, as opposed to adults who are collecting inappropriate images of children, however, the law doesn’t make such a distinction.
“Obviously we were very concerned. When using a carriage service to send child pornography or something like that, there are the same penalties of a 15-year maximum imprisonment and the possibility of a registration on the sex offender register – whether you’re a teenager or an adult.”
Since then the lawyer and her colleagues have developed educational resources, which they take to schools and youth services across the state.
But as a small team, and with growing demand for information, the organisation has decided to extend its reach by running webinars.
“This way we can present the material to anyone wherever they are, so they can log in whether they’re in Broken Hill, or Wagga, or wherever, so that they don’t miss out on that information just because they live out in the country,” she explains, adding that anyone interested in learning about the law can have access to the session simply by logging in.
So far the feedback has been positive, but parents are of course concerned about the hefty repercussions of their children’s actions.
“I think there’s a sense, perhaps, that the law shouldn’t necessarily be the same, that teenagers should be looked at as being in a different category.
“We’re trying to find solutions that won’t actually affect them [teenagers] for the rest of their lives; but with these offences there are things that get carried on for a long time.”
A conviction of child pornography would make it impossible to work with children in the future, which includes everything from volunteering, youth work and nursing to doing maintenance on school grounds.
But the part teens struggle most to understand is that legally they can have sex from the age of 16, while sending a sexy image to their boyfriend or girlfriend of a similar age, is technically illegal.
“Young people of course would think ‘well shouldn’t it be the other way around?’, and I wouldn’t expect young people to necessarily know that if you can consent to actual sex, then it would still be a crime to send pictures as part of that relationship,” she says.
The webinars also tackle the growing issue of cyber bullying, another matter that can get children into trouble with the law.
“There is a Commonwealth law where it is an offence of using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend, and that’s one of the most common ones that we would see where it usually involves online bullying. Or an intimidation charge, as you can intimidate over the internet as well,” explains Ms Elliott, who adds that there has been an increase in young people taking out Apprehended Violence Orders to protect them against people at school or people that they know based on evidence collected from online.
“It’s a new social space, and of course that comes with the pluses and minuses of the social world in the physical world. There’s definitely room for a lot of education on etiquette and respectful relationships online, just like we do in person.”
While it all sounds quite grave, the Legal Aid worker stresses that the webinars do not employ scare tactics or take a hard-line approach; it’s more about presenting the facts and informing students to equip them with the knowledge to help them make better decisions.
“Most of us spend our lives on our phones and on the internet without any dramas at all. Hopefully by starting these conversations in an accessible way, they can then have that information and then it’s totally up to them what they do with it,” she says.