Penis pictures of classmates, nude videos of classmates: more and more children and adolescents are being targeted by investigators because of the spread of child pornography. “Last year it went through the roof,” says Johannes Luff, head of the criminological research group of the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office (LKA), the German Press Agency (dpa) in Munich. His research group has just published a study on the subject. The title: “Because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
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According to him, the number of suspects under the age of 21 rose by around 125 percent across Germany to 7584. In 2018, there were still 3316 registered suspects. “That gets more and more from year to year,” says Luff. “It already starts with the ten-year-olds.” The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher. “Mostly they are accidental finds,” says Luff. For example, when investigators confiscate cell phones from young people because of a drug offense, they are increasingly finding porn and nude photos.
“This development has been evident for several years,” says the renowned cyber criminologist Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger from the Institute for Police Science at the University of Police in Brandenburg, who has been researching the phenomenon of cybergrooming for years. “A basic insight that we also know from other areas and that is now increasingly evident in relation to digital risks is that minors can not only become victims, but also perpetrators.” Far too seldom is it spoken to children about what they are actually not allowed to do online. “So far, people have concentrated more on saying: Be careful not to become a victim. But it is apparently more difficult to say: Take care that you do not become a perpetrator.”
Criminal law is lagging behind
The Bavarian LKA attributes the increase in the number of young suspects mainly to the fact that smartphones are becoming more and more common among children and young people. Often schoolchildren get such pictures in WhatsApp chats, sometimes they are photos of their peers or girlfriends – or selfies like the “Dickpic” called penis photo.
According to Rüdiger, criminal law is still not fully capable of responding to what is possible and the order of the day through social media. “Twenty years ago it was assumed that no one would inadvertently own child pornography.” Today it is different. “As soon as a 13-year-old sends a pornographic medium of herself and it ends up in a class chat in some way, every member of this chat can be liable to prosecution.
Differentiation under criminal law difficult
Of course there are “actually classic perpetrators,” says Rüdiger. The 17-year-old, for example, who blackmailed nine- or eleven-year-old girls through the net. The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) reports on a case from last year in which the homes of 21 suspects in eleven federal states were searched because they are said to have shared and disseminated child pornographic video files via social networks. The youngest suspects were just 14 years old.
“But it is not uncommon for there to be cases that one would rather describe as sexting among adults and older adolescents, which are based on the equality of sexual acts,” says Rüdiger. A differentiation under criminal law is becoming more and more difficult in society. And even if the investigations were frequently stopped in such cases: “The children and young people may still be investigated first because of the possession of child pornography.”
Focus on media literacy
Over 90 percent of those who are considered to be perpetrators are boys and men, says Rüdiger. The Bavarian LKA is even clearer and describes the typical suspect as a German secondary school student aged 14 or 15. “Society cannot be surprised if children and young people do not adhere to a criminal law that they do not even know about because nobody explained it to them before they could get their hands on a smartphone,” says Rüdiger. As a rule, not even adults know that sending unwanted “dick pics” can be a criminal offense. In Finland, according to reports from this week, prison sentences for unwanted penis pictures are even under discussion.
Luff from the LKA therefore appeals to parents to deal with the issue together with their children and to point out the dangers of nude photos. “Data protection is also and above all data protection. What is stored somewhere can no longer be found on the Internet.”
From Rüdiger’s point of view, the only really effective remedy against the phenomenon is media literacy. There he sees massive social failures. There are cases of children who take and send nude pictures of themselves, of 13-year-olds who send or receive penis pictures or masturbation videos. “You don’t even know where to start. From my point of view, this is a total failure of parents, schools, politics and society as a whole.”