Today’s children will feature in almost 1,000 online photographs by the time they reach the age of five. That’s according to recent research commissioned by the charity Nominet for its online safety campaign, Knowthenet.
Recent national and international media coverage illustrates how journalists have used imagery and comments accessed from children’s social media accounts. But who should have access to these images – and what are these children’s rights to them?
A revised editors' code of practice for journalists which came into effect on January 1, unfortunately fails to provide crucial advice on the use of social media images of children.
This is a grey area under the law. Significant questions remain over whether the media should access and publish images and comments from the social media accounts of children and young people and how appropriate it is for journalists to initiate direct contact with minors.
Our society is learning to live with unprecedented levels of media saturation. Young people are among the first to consider whether the publication of photographs and comments on public platforms may have an impact on their future.
Many of those people who work in the media interviewed for my research describe accessing the social networking sites of children and young people as a “reflex action". One told me:
The first thing any journalist does is to go straight on to Google Images and search. Children’s and young people’s lives are all there. We would go on to Facebook and take pictures and stuff.
Initial findings from my study of the content of print media found that newspapers in Northern Ireland routinely printed photographs accessed from social networking sites of young people who have taken their own lives. The negative impact of this type of journalistic practice was raised by the charity the Samaritans in its submission to the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.
Intruding into young lives
My research study also included the voices of 33 children and young people in Northern Ireland, aged between 14 and 23, who describe the direct impact of media intrusion on the grieving process. One said a journalist had contacted them 12 hours after a friend’s suicide.
They don’t respect anything … I just told him straight away ‘No’, but there was quotes and ones from what his family were meant to have said and his family hadn’t released statements.
The levels of intrusion extended to journalists accessing phone numbers and telephoning the young people directly. Some said that they felt this was an intrusion into their privacy, as they had not given permission for such images or comments to be printed:
They just quoted everything off Facebook, they didn’t ask us any questions but any wee notes we’d put up on Facebook, they just took that as if we’d said that to them.
These young people’s experiences raise a number of significant ethical issues. It is clear that media engagement needs to be carefully managed and monitored. While a comprehensive system of press regulation has yet to emerge after the Leveson Inquiry, several of the largest-circulation UK newspapers have signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation which has a Code of Practice that outlines: “young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.” It also states that adult consent must be present prior to interviewing a child under the age of 16.
No real regulatory sanctions
But it’s clear from my research that the regulatory rules are being breached, often without the child or young person’s knowledge. Since their inception over 60 years ago, there has been criticism of the regulatory bodies that oversee the media. Much of the criticism relates to the self-regulatory nature of the system as well as the ineffective sanctions and the lack of redress for injured parties.
One significant plea from children and youth organisations, such as Include Youth in Northern Ireland, Mediawise in England and internationally, UNICEF, is for children to be treated as a special case when it comes to media regulation. Children’s and young people’s advocates state that there needs to be a recognition of children’s rights and a genuine willingness to ensure that they are incorporated into the media agenda.
In Northern Ireland, there have been recent initiatives to run workshops and provide resources for children and young people that give information about their rights and advice when talking to the media.
Substantial changes are necessary in the media’s professional and ethical practices and the regulatory processes, which now must take social media and journalists' use of it into account. We need to educate young people on the media’s responsibilities and also the ways in which they can protect their privacy and challenge any breaches of their rights. Crucially, future debates, policies and practices in this area must value and consider children’s and young people’s voices and experiences.