School children engage in sexting every day, but do not realise they can face prosecution for creating and distributing child pornography, according to NGOs and the Films and Publication Board.
Sexting involves sending sexual messages, which include text, pictures and videos over cellphones and through social media applications like Whatsapp.
“It is a daily occurrence. We are finding that with children aged between 10 and 14, and older than that, sexting is quite prevalent,” Shaheda Omar from the Teddy Bear Clinic told News24.
“With the advent of technology and access to cellphones… this is happening across the board and not just in a specific population group.”
She said “screen-agers”, teenagers who were often glued to their mobile screens were particularly at risk of being involved in sexting.
“We hear of incidents being reported in schools, but there are many incidents that we don’t know of. The incidents were are looking at are not an accurate reflection [of how widespread the problem is].”
‘They are not aware that it is illegal’
“What we do in our school outreach is inform learners that this constitutes a criminal offence. They are not aware that it is illegal.”
She said however, that she was not aware of any current cases against children for sexting.
According to the Films and Publications Act, child pornography “includes any image, however created, or any description of a person, real or simulated… who is depicted, made to appear, look like, represented or described as being, under the age of 18 years”.
Sections 18, 19 and 20 of the Criminal Law (Sexual offences and related matters) Amendment Act, deal specifically with the illegality of the sexual grooming of children, the exposure or display of child pornography or pornography to children and using children to benefit from child pornography.
In 2013, the Constitutional Court found that sections 15 and 16 of that same act were unconstitutional. This meant that the criminalisation of sexual conduct between consenting adolescents was unconstitutional. This included the actual act of “penetration” and other behaviour, like kissing.
The initial case was brought by the Teddy Bear Clinic.
‘Pornography is different and separate to consensual sex’
Omar said, however, that the act of sexting would not fall under that ruling.
“Pornography is different and separate to consensual sex. They are dealt with through different sections.”
The Films and Publications Board told News24 that a lot of the products of sexting, like pictures and video often end up online and are used as a means of “cyber-bullying”.
“In our back to school campaign we inform learners about movies and video games… and we specifically engage with them on sexting,” FPB spokesperson Janine Raftopoulos said.
“These things are uploaded to the internet and then they go viral. Learners then try to emulate it.”
She used the example of Jules High School in Johannesburg where a video went viral of a two boys, aged 14 and 16 at time, having sex with a then 15-year-old girl.
The girl initially claimed she was raped, however she later said the sex was consensual. The boys were initially charged with statutory rape, but later took part in a diversion programme.
“That girl eventually killed herself,” Raftopoulos said.
She said this proved the knock-on effect of cyber-bullying.
‘Sexting counts as child porn’
Germaine Vogel, from the Women and Men against Child Abuse said the organisation was making a concerted effort to fight against child pornography, and wanted more people to be made aware of it, especially with Child Protection Week happening from yesterday (May 27) to June 2.
“Children should know that sexting counts as child porn, and that once a picture goes up on the internet it cannot be deleted – it could haunt them for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“What these children must be made to realise is that they are feeding into the demand for child porn by creating a market for it.”
She said there needed to be educational programmes to help children understand the consequences of sexting.
“Parents also need to keep an eye on it. It doesn’t seem like enough children are being warned.”
This view was echoed by Omar.
“It is an important thing to understand that when you give a cellphone to a child, that they have to understand that there is a responsibility that comes with it,” she said.
“There must be consistent dialogue. At the end of the day it is the responsibility of parents to speak to children about the use and misuse of social media.
“We should not allow children to use cellphones at family time, or meal times. If parents say they have given their children cellphones so that they are safe and they know where they are, those cellphones should be switched off after 21:00, when the children are at home.”
Raftopoulos said the FPB’s draft online regulation policy dealt with cyber-bullying and sexting to ensure that they are regulated.