Op-Ed: Australia’s anti sexting campaign — $120 million for what?

Posted Apr 15, 2011 by Paul Wallis
Apparently Australia’s morally purer than snow government has caught up with sexting by teens. One problem is that people under 18 can be prosecuted for “child pornography” if they send pictures, even of themselves.
The other problem is $120 million down the tube for nothing. This situation could be seen as a working model of how not to solve a problem at the greatest possible expense for the least result.
Sexting may be a lot of things, including potentially dangerous, but it’s also universal. Give anyone a camera, and the chances of something sexual are pretty good. Morality is a bit redundant in a situation where people can simply ignore it. That hasn't stopped Australia's government using big money to avoid solving a major problem.
Also bizarre enough in its own right is the fact that this very common knowledge subject has suddenly taken on a high profile. There are things to be concerned about with sexting, but why has it taken 10 years to even address the issue? It could be a typical political profiling exercise, “Look, we’re taking it seriously, and here’s $120 million to prove it.” That means it will be a classic failure, before it even starts.
The Australian Federal Police are the lucky souls entrusted with this very thankless task, and they’re visiting schools trying to help. They’re also stuck with what is described as “dull” material to work with. That’s actually a statutory situation. They can’t warn against sexting and then broadcast examples themselves. A typical bureaucratic situation, in fact.
The government has managed to take the exact opposite position to the necessary position. The fact is that throwing money at things doesn’t usually work. Finding solutions does. The answer to sexting, if it’s considered such a problem, cannot possibly be firing off a range of high ground pronouncements from people seen to be out of touch fun-haters.
The trouble is that sexting is already a big problem, even for quite young kids. These are situations which they can't control, and they may not understand the real dangers, which often aren't other kids.
As usual, kids are also being treated like idiots as well as having their secrets tromped all over, and they’re more likely to resent it than take it seriously. Ironically, the answer is a lot simpler. The very well informed younger generation is far more aware of possible risks online than they’re given credit for, and if they’re told there’s real danger, and can see evidence of risks to take seriously, they’ll do that.
Nobody between the ages of 0 and 17 needs to be told there are risks online. What they want to know is how to recognize them and avoid them. Since it’s self evident to this age group that adults (strange term to use about politicians) have no understanding of their issues, useful material has to be sourced elsewhere.
Another issue is the usual big time lag between kids’ problems and people finding out about them. Kids will try to manage their own disasters. That can make things a lot worse, because knowing when and how to get out of situations are acquired skills. Even a very bright teen can get into ridiculous, avoidable situations simply because they’re part of a social scene, etc. If sexting is the big thing, sexting is what happens, and nobody is thinking about risks until there’s a problem, by which time it may be a real risk in process.
Risks include stress, bullying, ostracism, blackmail and natural social consequences. Some kids have been devastated, and others put in impossible situations. Broadcasting sext messages is also a major issue in attracting attention from potentially dangerous viewers.
The best options are simple clear slogans and mechanisms:
· You never know who’s watching.
· Don’t take stupid risks. Keep your private life private.
· Don’t do something you might regret. Things can get embarrassing in a hurry.
· Where does your sext message go, after you send it?
Any consultation should be through a simple thing like a Facebook site, where kids with problems can make the decision to get advice anonymously. That’s a lot cooler than the alternative, which would be seen as “drama queen calls the cops”, not exactly a great social asset for teens.
The other big issue is the bizarre fact that the age of consent in Australia is 16, but if kids send pictures of themselves to someone, they can be charged for child pornography if they’re under 18. In fairness, charges are uncommon in Australia, to my knowledge, mainly based on "grooming" issues and prosecutors wouldn’t be too keen on doing so in peer to peer cases, but it’s a pretty stupid situation in terms of basic law.
(In the US, people have been charged, both with sending and possessing images. That’s not a great outcome, because this makes sexting “clever” and therefore almost compulsory in some social groups.)
This “law” doesn’t even acknowledge the right of people to send their own private messages. Would a love letter from one 17 year old to another be a form of child molestation?
This is not the time for antiquarianism in child protection laws. Australia’s legislators should get their laws into this century, and stop using up AFP time on a campaign which needs much better planning. These kids need to be able to manage their own situations, not sit around being told things they already know by people who simultaneously aren’t explaining how to get out of trouble.
Counseling and advice can be managed by child welfare groups with AFP support available when required. That’d be enough to cover all the bases and give people a chance to deal with their situations safely.
That $120 million could have been $12.99. Websites and advisory systems are a lot cheaper, and they're direct. Someone should do the costing before they do the appropriations for child safety campaigns. It'd save billions, and achieve a damn sight more.