‘Ordinary’ social media use can have extraordinary legal consequences

Yvonne* was having a quiet Friday night at home, scrolling her Snapchat feeds and mucking around with lenses when she decided to send a Snap of her breasts.

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Maybe she thought she’d get some Snapbacks, give her friends a laugh. What she got instead was a formal caution from police after being investigated for the NSW criminal offence of disseminating child abuse material.

In other words, because she was 14 when she shared a sexy selfie with her friends and followers online, Yvonne came close to being charged under child pornography laws.

Yvonne is the kind of teenager I see in high school classrooms and at youth services right around NSW: they’re smart, they’re tech-savvy, and they have more likes on Insta than I can dream of. But they don’t always realise that some of what they get up to on social media can have serious, lifelong consequences. Behaviour that some young people see as harmless flirting, or a normal part of dating, is viewed as something more serious under the law.

That’s why Legal Aid NSW designed a workshop that starts a conversation with young people on this topic. It’s not about trying to use scare tactics, or telling kids to stay offline. It is about arming them with the knowledge they need to make decisions that keep them safe and out of trouble.

What I’ve learned talking to teenagers about cyberbullying and sexting is that most young people, most of the time, are using social media safely and making respectful decisions about what they share online.

Many young people are not aware that any picture that shows a person under the age of 18 who is naked, or striking a sexy pose, is considered child pornography under Commonwealth criminal laws.

However, many young people are not aware that any picture that shows a person under the age of 18 who is naked, or striking a sexy pose, is considered child pornography under Commonwealth criminal laws. A similar picture that depicts a person under the age of 16 will be considered child abuse material under NSW laws. Because these laws are designed to protect children and teenagers, teenagers may not realise they restrict their behaviour, too – so a 17-year-old girl who sends a sexy picture of herself to her 17-year-old boyfriend is risking criminal penalties.

0:00 Students go through a role play to explore the grey areas of consent Share Students go through a role play to explore the grey areas of consent

As well as educating young people, Legal Aid NSW’s specialist Children’s Legal Service gives free legal advice to young people who do find themselves in trouble for taking, sending, keeping or sharing sexy images. Some of the situations in which we’ve given advice to young people involve young people taking and sending pictures to their partners. In these cases, we’re often told that the pictures were never intended to be seen by anyone outside the relationship. Other more troubling situations involve intimate pictures being shared without permission, or being used to bully a young person online.

At the most serious end of the spectrum, a person who has been charged and found guilty of these sorts of offences may find themselves being locked up or included on the Sex Offender Register. Being found guilty of a child pornography offence can have a real impact on a young person’s ability to get a job in the future, especially if they want to work with children themselves one day.

As a lawyer and a parent, I know I’d rather have a conversation with a young person in the classroom or in the living room, rather than down the phone line from a police station.

Those of us who work with young people have a real responsibility to help them understand some of the risks and be clear about what the law is. As a lawyer and a parent, I know I’d rather have a conversation with a young person in the classroom or in the living room, rather than down the phone line from a police station.

 

This week’s Insight looks at how people understand consent when it comes to sex and sexting | Consent – 8 August, 8.30pm SBS 

* Not her real name

Julianne Elliott is a Legal Aid NSW lawyer who specialises in educating young people about the law. Legal Aid NSW offers engaging workshops across NSW to help young people, teachers and youth workers come to grips with this area of law. You can request a workshop for your school or organisation.

If you need help with a legal question, call LawAccess NSW on 1300 888 529. Young people in NSW who need advice about a criminal law problem, or think they might be in trouble with the law, can call the Youth Hotline on 1800 101 810.