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Experts: Don’t blame the victims of youth ‘selfies’

It’s a mistake to blame young people who take sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves when those images end up being redistributed over the Internet, according to experts who gathered in London this week to discuss a new study by the U.K.-based Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).

It’s also a mistake to assume that the images, sometimes referred to as “selfies,” were taken voluntarily by the children who appear in them.

Researchers analyzed sexually explicit pictures taken and supposedly shared by young people, and found that 89.9 percent of the images had been “harvested” from their original upload location and posted to other public sites. Moreover, 100 percent of the images the IWF analyzed depicting children 15 and younger were harvested and posted somewhere else.

The IWF study, which was conducted late last year and funded by Microsoft, analyzed 3,803 photos and videos that were believed to be of children and youth ranging from infants to 20 years old.

“What the IWF went to seek and what they found are quite different,” said Tink Palmer, Chief Executive Officer of the Marie Collins Foundation and moderator of a panel discussion about the emotional and behavioral aspects of producing such images. “We need to focus on definitions and understand that every picture tells a story about what’s happening to the children.”

Microsoft funded the IWF to repeat and expand similar research done three years ago. IWF’s 2012 study found that of the 12,000-plus images taken and shared by youth and examined by the IWF, 88.15 percent had migrated to “parasite websites” where people sometimes paid to download them. As part of our child online protection strategy, Microsoft was interested in learning whether the 2012 trend was continuing, and whether there was more to be gleaned regarding the content’s commercial availability.

What the IWF learned from the new study, however, was very different. The 2014 set of supposed selfies featured much younger children, thus making it all but impossible to refer to the images as “self-produced.” Indeed, experts agreed the latest content could be divided into three categories: (1) truly self-generated, (2) by-products of online “grooming,” and (3) results of outright coercion or “sextortion.”

“With the under 10 (year olds), we have to believe something coercive is going on,” said Professor Sonia Livingstone of the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics. “It’s just another way that an already at-risk group is being further victimized.”

IWF was unable to ascertain (nor was such a determination in scope) the category into which each image might fall. The latest results are shocking and disturbing because of the younger-aged children and the heightened explicit sexual nature of the acts. In 2012, not a single image included a child believed to be 13 or younger, IWF said.

The London event, co-hosted by IWF and Microsoft, featured a second panel where experts discussed guidance for parents and educators, as well as ongoing technological efforts. The group offered advice for parents about webcams and how they operate, noting they’re no longer “a device that balances on top of a computer monitor.” They also called out simple messages for children, including “privates are private” and “speak up and tell someone” if something or someone makes them uncomfortable online or elsewhere. The event brought together 100 policymakers, child safety advocates, technology industry representatives and others to discuss the findings and to begin to chart a way forward.

All agreed the research indicated that different analyses and potential mitigation paths were required for the images involving older children versus those featuring children under 13. IWF agreed. “It is indisputable that coercion of young people to produce and/or share sexual content online must be referred to as a form of child sexual abuse,” said Sarah Smith, IWF’s lead researcher on the project. The content produced by the older age groups, meanwhile, could be regarded as more traditional “sexting.”

For our part, Microsoft will seek to create and deploy appropriate technology to help address the issue. In fact, as part of the U.K. government’s #WePROTECT Children Online initiative, Microsoft is leading a technology project about self-generated indecent images among youth. In addition, we will continue to raise awareness, help educate the public, and continue to partner with organizations like the IWF to ensure strategies and proposed “solutions” are research-based. Microsoft has agreed to again sponsor similar research by the IWF this year.

To read Part 1 of this two-part blog, which focuses on the study results and some Microsoft suggested guidance for parents, click here. To learn more about staying safer online generally, see this website.