Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

At the grand old age of 33, I am (just) old enough to remember teenage life before mobile phones. Instead, one of my friends had a pager, and to reach her you had to phone an operator and dictate a message. Profanity was prohibited. I have a distinct memory of telling a call-centre worker that, yes, I did want to refer to my friend as a “stupid bar steward”.

My point is that teenagers are creative, and, when it suits them, determined. That’s why I winced when Jeremy Hunt called for tech companies to ban under-18s from “sexting” — sending explicit messages through smartphones. It felt like he was setting teenagers a challenge.

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things,” the health secretary told a parliamentary inquiry this week. I doubt Silicon Valley would disagree. But the big tech companies might take issue with his next assertion: that it is their responsibility to stop teen sexting “because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent [them] being transmitted”.

Up to a point. Yes, there is software that can compare images against a database of explicit photographs and flag up matches. (This is used to limit the spread of child abuse pictures.) There is also software that can identify large enough swaths of skin tone in a picture to trigger a ban.

But these are blunt instruments, which can deliver false positives, and online censors have other issues. Take a simple question: when are nipples acceptable? Facebook has struggled with this, facing criticism for banning breastfeeding photographs, the iconic “Napalm Girl” image of a naked child, and topless pictures of those undergoing gender transition (the precise point when a male nipple becomes a female one is a philosophical question for the ages). And that’s a company which uses human moderators. An algorithm will find it even harder.

Next comes another social problem. Raging hormones, poor impulse control and an intuitive understanding of digital communications are a potent combination. If teenagers can’t send a picture, they could upload it to a filesharing site and send their paramour the link. Or use a messaging service such as WhatsApp, which offers end-to-end encryption. Any regime that could outfox strategies like this would need to be intrusive, and would struggle to work in real-time.

At the same evidence session, Mr Hunt also suggested that tech companies could identify cyberbullying through automated “word pattern recognition”. Perhaps he knows something that the makers of Siri, Cortana and other personal assistants don’t, because AIs struggle with the complexity of human conversation. Even humans misread snippets of text when they are divorced from tone, context and facial expression. Ask anyone who’s had an argument on the internet.

Mr Hunt wants technological solutions to social problems. And no wonder — the National Health Service budget is under strain, and child mental healthcare resources are limited. The sexual health charity Brook cites research suggesting that 12 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds have seen or received sexual messages online, and when sexting goes wrong the consequences can be catastrophic. Some young people feel harassed and coerced into sending nudes. Others send a photo to one person, only to see it spread around their school. That can lead to bullying and even (rarely) suicide.

Most are unaware that they are committing a criminal offence. Explicit pictures of under-18s are classed as child pornography, no matter the intention of the sender or age of the recipient.

Every parent would love to wave a magic tech wand and make problems like this disappear. The more immediate answer, however, is education. This week, the chairs of five select committees wrote to the government asking for sex and relationship education to be made compulsory in schools. Children would be taught about consent and coercion — how to say no, and how to respect others’ right to say no. The government was unmoved.

That is a shame, because the striking thing about the iGeneration, as the academic Jean Twenge calls them, is how sober and strait-laced they are. A quarter of under-25s don’t drink. Teenage pregnancies are at their lowest level since records began in 1969. The tech theorist Danah Boyd, who researched sexting among US teens, calls it “a very rational act with very irrational consequences”. If we talk more about those consequences, it seems likely that young people will listen. And ultimately, finding a high-tech way to stop them sexting might be harder than convincing them it’s a bad idea.

The writer is deputy editor of the New Statesman

Get alerts on Social Media when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article