A restorative response to underage sexting?

node leader
Jon Collins
7 September 2015

Last week a case involving a boy who sent a naked picture of himself to a schoolmate, and the subsequent involvement of the police, made the news.

When the police became aware that this incident had occurred they had little choice but to record it as a crime. The boy hasn’t been charged but his involvement in this incident is now on police records and may therefore be accessible if anyone requests an advanced criminal record check. This is far from ideal, but it’s hard to see what else the police could have done in these circumstances.

The question that interests me, though, is what happens next? The boy involved may well not feel like he has done anything wrong. Indeed, given that the recipient shared the photo with other schoolmates (itself potentially a criminal offence), presumably without his consent, he may well feel like he is the one who has been wronged. His mother has said he is “humiliated”.

It’s also possible that the girl who received the photo may not feel like a victim, but there are reasons why his behaviour was illegal and there may be value in ensuring that she recognises this. Alternatively, if she received the picture unsolicited and felt under pressure to reciprocate, she may well feel – rightly - that she was harmed.

In any case, it’s clear that some harm has been caused to the individuals involved and in all likelihood to the school community. So how can this be addressed? Without knowing all the details it would be unwise to get into specific remedies, but it is clear that in situations like this a restorative approach has much to offer.

A restorative intervention can focus attention on the harm that has been caused and what can be done to address it, without necessarily labelling each party as ‘victim’ or ‘offender’. It can bring together those involved to discuss the incident in a measured way and agree the best way forward. And it can enable the complexities of the incident to be recognised and fully explored. It can also involve the wider school community, opening up a dialogue around the potential dangers of sexting and other forms of inappropriate online behaviour.

Clearly this case was ill suited to the strictures of the formal justice system. It need not have been a police matter. But that is not to say that it should simply have been ignored. Where harm has been caused it needs to be addressed. And restorative practice can be the best way to achieve that.