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Experts say that U.K plans to ban children from sexting won’t work

The U.K. government is seeking help from tech companies to stop people under 18 from sending sexually explicit images to each other, but it’s a tricky proposition. While the U.K.’s health secretary suggests the tech industry could “do really smart things” to block such content, experts say that stopping sexting is not only unfeasible but also risks criminalizing teenagers.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt revealed plans for the ban while giving evidence to the health select committee in the Parliament this week.

“I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health among teenagers, and not the cause of the problem,” he said.

Should technology companies shoulder the burden?

“It is doable, but very difficult,” Alicia Kearns, a director at Global Influence who previously worked within the U.K. government, told VICE News. “I think it isn’t possible without major investment, major hiring [and] major funding, in a way that I think probably isn’t the best use of people’s time.”

The growing phenomenon of underage sexting has led to a rise in cyberbullying and is thought to have a negative impact on the mental health of teenagers, particularly when explicit images are shared widely without consent.

Even though the age of consent in the U.K. is 16, it is illegal to send sexually explicit images — including of yourself — to anyone under the age of 18. Robert Conway, a criminal defense lawyer at law firm Vardags, told VICE News that introducing new measures threatens to criminalize young people even further, especially when there are already laws in place to prosecute such offenses.

“The Crown Prosecution Service is very clear,” Conway said. “There are offences as it stands which can be used to target online bullying or harassment. Those protections are already in place.”

How would it work?

There are essentially just three options open to the government to ban sexting.

The first is to apply a content filter similar to the ones most internet service providers already use to give families the option of blocking certain websites and content.

As sexting is primarily carried out using instant messaging apps such as Snapchat, Yellow, and WhatsApp, this is technically possible, but even with advances in artificial intelligence, filtering is still prone to misconstrue the meaning of words and images. Additionally, because these apps don’t verify the age of their users, it means content would potentially be blocked for everyone and not just those under 18.

The second solution would be to implement a proper age verification system for these apps. The government is already doing that for porn websites in the U.K., and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has called on the government to extend that system to messaging and social apps.

This would require mobile phone networks to verify a user’s age, but even then Kearns thinks that kids would simply find alternative solutions. “If you ban WhatsApp or Snapchat, you drive people onto encrypted or illegal or shady platforms where they continue to do the same kind of things.”

The last option comes from China, where the government has been criminalizing sexting since 2010. Authorities employ huge teams to monitor all content shared on messaging and social apps. If something gets flagged for specific content, the account that sent the content is automatically suspended.

Aside from the obvious privacy concerns with such a system, it would also become a huge drain on police time, and tech-savvy teenagers would likely find ways to avoid detection anyway.

So why propose a ban?

“Imposing blanket bans within social media for under 18s is nigh on impossible and reeks instead of political posture and body language,” James Kirkham, the former head of social and mobile at advertising agency Leo Burnett, told VICE News.

In any case, the apps that the proposal would cover may already be too mainstream for teenagers to use for sexting. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Snapchat all have a new rival in an app called Yellow.

Described as Tinder for children, Yellow is hugely popular on Apple’s App Store. It allows users to anonymously connect with each other and lacks an age verification system. Because of this, some critics allege that it is being used by paedophiles to target minors.

“Any app that allows strangers to send photos to children or vice versa is troubling – particularly where the images being exchanged are of a sexual nature,” the NSPCC said earlier this month.

The company says it is working on a new version of the app to prevent those over 18 from discovering children, but the lack of any proper verification system means that such improvements are pretty redundant.

Cover: Stefan Sauer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images