The Scrutiny Support Officer submitted a report to provide the Panel with background information in relation to the topic of 'sexting'.
Reference had been made to the issue of 'sexting at the Panels previous meeting when it had received an update on Child Sexual Exploitation.
Sexting was defined as being images or videos generated by children under the age of 18, or of children under the age of 18, that were of a sexual nature or were indecent.
The issue had gained national attention in March 2016 following an investigation by the Times newspaper on the prevalence of sexting in British schools. 50 secondary schools had taken part in the investigation and were asked to provide details of sexting cases since 2012. The 50 schools identified 1,218 pupils who had sent or received a sexual or indecent image shared via a mobile phone, webcam, digital camera or website. More than one-third of cases had involved children aged 12 and 13 and more than one in 10 cases involved a 'non-school adult'. The information was used to estimate a national figure which suggested that 44,112 secondary school pupils had sent or received indecent/sexual images over the last three years.
Following a review into childrens and adolescents mental health and CAMHS by the Governments Health Select Committee in 2014-15, recommendations were made that clear pathways be identified for young people to report that they had been sent indecent images of other children/young people and that support be provided to those children who had been victims of image sharing. In 2014/15 the NSPCC reported that there were 1,200 Childline counselling sessions with young people that mentioned 'sexting'.
The Councils Risk and Reduction Manager had been invited to the Panels meeting to outline the Councils response to this issue in Middlesbrough.
J Watson, the Councils Risk and Reduction Manager, was welcomed to the meeting and advised the Panel that his role was to try and slow down and reduce risk-taking behaviours in young people, such as drinking alcohol, drug misuse, teenage pregnancy. The Risk and Reduction Manager chaired the VEMT (vulnerable, exploited, missing, trafficked) Practitioners Group (VPG), which the Panel had previously heard about during its update on CSE and sat on two governing bodies of schools for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.
In terms of risk taking behaviours in young people, it was explained that the traditional issues, such as smoking, underage drinking, experimenting with drugs and underage sexual activity, were all within the remit of reduction strategies, however, this now linked with '21st century' risk taking behaviours caused by the use of technology in particular. There was now the problem of so called 'legal highs' that could be bought legally but had the same effect as illegal drugs, and the increasing use of internet and social media (including Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram). Facebook enabled users to share photographs and messages, whereas Snapchat allowed users to send a photograph to another/other user(s) and would disappear after 10 seconds of being opened. What many people did not realise was that a screen shot could be taken and then posted onto the internet/other social media sites. Young people and adults used on-line dating sites and on-line gaming, such as X-box live, and you could never be 100% sure who you were actually talking to and it was difficult to prove age. Pornography could be accessed on the internet by a range of devices. Previously the internet would have been accessed by a 'desktop' computer but advancing technology now meant internet access was easier than ever via tablets and smartphones. This provided young people with easy access to anything on the internet and they were becoming involved in whatever they were watching.
The Panel was informed that the following issues were being noticed in Middlesbrough:-
There had been a reduction in the number of young people consuming alcohol, however, those that were drinking were drinking in larger quantities and stronger alcohol.
Young people smoking cannabis was a big problem in Middlesbrough.
The influence of technology in relation to 'sexting', social media and internet dating.
There had been a rise in the number of self-harm cases in young people which could be linked to any of the above issues.
The Risk and Reduction Manager stated that the VPG, which he chaired, met every four weeks and members of the VPG included a range of partners such as Police, Childrens Services, Sexual Health Services, Youth Offending Service, Trading Standards. The VPG acknowledged that sexting was one issue that led to child sexual exploitation and a range of examples was provided to the Panel.
In relation to the law, it was confirmed that it was not a criminal offence for a person over the age of 16 to make and distribute a self-generated sexual image but it was an offence for a person under 16 to make a self-generated image, possess a sexual image and distribute a sexual image. Where a young person was convicted of taking, making, possessing or distributing a sexual image, they would be placed on the sex offenders register. It was also an offence if the young person was over 16 years but there was evidence of coercion or under the influence of alcohol/drugs.
The Local Authority had a duty to protect children and young people up to the age of 18 so 16-18 year olds were difficult to deal with in terms of identifying whether exploitation was taking place and whether there were criminal offences being committed. It was also an offence to groom a young person under the age of 16 for sexual activity. Sexting was a difficult issue for the Police to deal with and Police were not currently criminalising young people unless blackmail was involved. The issue was also becoming an increasing problem for schools.
Members were informed that Middlesbrough tended to be above the national average in relation to issues associated with children/young peoples risk taking behaviours (eg above national average number of young people admitted to hospital through alcohol consumption). In 2010 Middlesbrough had the highest number of teenage conception rates in the country, however, this figure had now reduced by almost 50% and Middlesbrough was now 18th out of 150 local authority areas. The reasons for such high numbers could be due to a number of factors including poverty and poor education (poor attendance and low attainment at school. In addition, it was highlighted it was not statutory to teach sex education in schools and the local authority was not aware of what schools were actually teaching as most schools were now academies and no longer managed by the local authority.
The reduction in teenage pregnancy rates could be attributable to targeted interventions with resources being focussed on Wards where teenage pregnancies were occurring. There had been a multi-agency decision for Risk and Reduction staff to go into schools at Year 9 (13-14 year olds) to address the issues around teenage pregnancy and sexting had now been included within this work for the last two years. A survey of Year 9 children was undertaken in schools (approximately 800 children) and it was reported that 22.5% of girls had sent a sexual image. The survey was repeated this year and this figure had reduced to 18.8%. Around 14% of boys (for both years surveyed) had sent a sexual image.
The Risk and Reduction Manager stated that a Problem Profile was required in relation to sexting as it was one of the pre-cursors to child sexual exploitation. The profile would be used to identify the size of the problem, how resources could be best targeted to reduce the problem, the impact the issue was having on young people, the impact the issue was having on childrens services, whether the issue was linked to the increase in cases of self-harming.
During the course of discussion, the following issues were raised:-
In response to a query, the Panel was advised that the true extent of the problem of sexting was not known, nor was the impact on Childrens Services of Stronger Families as the PC systems were unable to cross reference each other for information sharing purposes. It was highlighted that there had been ten cases of sexting within the last month that were being dealt with by Stronger Families.
Reference was made to so-called 'legal highs' and it was queried whether they would ever be made illegal. The Risk and Reduction Manager explained that 'legal highs', also known as psychoactive substances, mimicked the effect of illegal drugs but had been molecularly altered to avoid the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This meant that they were legal to possess or use and that they were sold openly. They could not be sold for human consumption if they were unsafe and were often sold under the guise of something else, such as plant food or bath salts. Certain substances had been banned by the Government, including mephedrone to which many people in Middlesbrough were addicted. The Government was trying to make illegal anything that altered a persons state of mind, however, it was proving difficult to find the correct definition for such a blanket ban.
In response to a query regarding teenage pregnancy rates in Middlesbrough, it was stated that in 2010 there were 65.4 pregnancies per 1,000 females and the latest figures, December 2014, were 35.5 pregnancies per 1,000 females. It was highlighted that repeat terminations in Middlesbrough were below the national average.
In relation to a query raised by a Panel Member, the Risk and Reduction Manager advised that there had been a previous campaign, 'say something if you see something', aimed at taxi drivers and hospitality workers. The campaign urged people to report anything that they felt was suspicious and might be linked to child sexual exploitation.
The Risk and Reduction Manager provided Panel Members with a handout, 'Sexting in Schools', which was a resource used when going into schools. The handout provided definitions of aggravated incidents and experimental incidents and a flowchart to guide the response process to sexting for professionals. The flowchart set out how the issue should be dealt with depending upon the age of the young person and it was hoped that all schools would adopt this once it was rolled.
The Risk and Reduction Manager reminded the Panel that the majority of children and young people were not involved in risk taking behaviours and that the information provided needed to be considered in context.
The Chair thanked the Officer for attending and for the information provided.
AGREED as follows:-
That the information provided be noted.
That the Panel propose to undertake an investigation into sexting in Middlesbrough and that it be added to the Panels proposed Work Programme for the 2016/17 Municipal Year which will be submitted to the Overview and Scrutiny Board for approval.