As Donald Trump discovered last week, things you say and do in the past have a habit of coming back and biting you on the bum. Especially when there is recording equipment around.
Whether being caught making lewd remarks on a bus will cost him the election is anyone’s guess, but there is a lesson there for everyone to see. Namely: if you wouldn’t be prepared to say something in public, don’t say it in private. In these days of smartphones and social media, you never know who’s watching or listening.
As their lives are increasingly publicly documented on sites such as Facebook and Instagram, young people need to be especially aware of this fact. We tell them their employment prospects can be dashed by one gurning student photo. That picture of you wearing a silly hat on the sixth-form residential will almost certainly never be erased from the big server in the sky.
Young people need to know that if sexting gets them into trouble, they can ask for help
When it comes to the new phenomenon of sexting – aka sending saucy photos of yourself as a means of flirtation – the consequences can be far more grave. To teenagers, it can seem like harmless fun – an electronic version of what has always gone on among adolescents.
But if photos are forwarded on, they can go viral, be exploited by bullies or even end up on adult porn sites. The distress caused has driven a number of young people to suicide. What’s more, in the UK, anyone who sends, receives or possesses an inappropriate image of an under-18 is breaking the law – even if that picture is of the person sending it.
The Crown Prosecution Service in England this week said that it would “not usually be in the public interest to prosecute consensual sharing of an image between two children of a similar age”, but it is still a possibility. Although police do not want to end up branding a whole generation of young people as child pornographers, they will not want to miss possible cases of child exploitation or grooming.
A minefield we must negotiate
This is heavy stuff and surely we owe it to young people that they are well-informed about it. Psychologists at Fife Council have said that pupils should be taught about the pitfalls of sexting as young as P7. Too young? I think not. Pupils should know about this stuff before they have their first mobile phone, not after. On the cusp of adolescence is surely the best time – not in the middle of the teen years, when they will be unlikely to listen to what parents and teachers have to say.
Most importantly, young people need to know that if sexting gets them into trouble or leads to emotional distress, they can go to an adult without being judged.
So, the issue of sexting is clearly a minefield, one that schools and teachers might not yet feel qualified to negotiate. But it is absolutely vital that teachers are fully informed and do not shy away from the issue in the classroom.
It’s important because it could be going on at any moment, under the desk, or when the teacher’s back is turned – whether staff like it or not. The digital world knows no boundaries, especially not the school gates.
As with sex education, we can’t let the prudes and those on the religious high ground tell schools to deprive children of knowledge that will help them survive in the modern world.
The best part of the world may have been delighted that Mr Trump has been tripped up by a past mistake.
But there is no delight at all in watching an innocent teenager – unaware of the possible consequences – suffer extreme emotional distress or a legal nightmare because they once sent a topless photo to impress someone they fancied.