EastEnders: why the revenge porn plotline should be essential viewing – for both teenagers and their parents

David Brown explores the issues surrounding Shakil's sexting - and Louise's rash revenge

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It’s been a while since EastEnders gave its younger characters any plotlines with dramatic heft. Usually, the junior Walfordites are resigned to taking ill-fated camping trips together or having parties in curiously well-lit nighclubs. But the current sexting/revenge porn storyline involving Bex, Shakil, Louise and Keegan tackles a topic that should be of massive concern to both tech-savvy teenagers and parents who fear they’re being left behind when it comes to the way their offspring communicate.

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Because, let’s face it, the statistics are shocking. According to the NSPCC, Shakil is far from alone in having sent a nude selfie. Around one in seven young people have taken either a semi-naked or naked picture of themselves. Over half then went to share the picture with someone else. In Shakil’s case, the image was sent to Bex, a fellow school friend and neighbour, with whom he was hoping to become romantically involved. But – as fans of the soap have now seen – Bex’s so-called mate Louise swiped the phone and sent the image far and wide at Walford High.

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The damage done to Shakil has yet to be shown, but it’ll be interesting to see how the soap deals with the fallout of these rash actions. After all, Shakil (hitherto depicted as a studious, mild-mannered teenager) has broken the law by taking the explicit photo in the first place and sending it to Bex. Bex too could be in trouble for storing the image on her phone, while Louise has also committed a crime by distributing it to her peer group.

EastEnders is in a powerful position in that it can provide moral guidance to its younger viewers, who watch in big numbers. OK, so Albert Square may be filled with philanderers and crooks who could all do with a seminar in moral probity, but actually emphasising the legal implications of sexting could strike a chord with vulnerable teens who have cameras, 4G networks and social media at their fingertips. It would have to tread a fine line when it came to scaremongering (any ‘you are going to jail’ lectures could backfire spectacularly), but there could at least be a lesson learned about respect, both for their own body and for the feelings of other people.

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It would also be refreshing for the show to explore why Shakil felt compelled to take the image in the first place. A 2016 online survey of 1001 children and young people aged 11 to 16 conducted by Middlesex University found that 65 per cent had seen online pornography by the age of 15. It was also reported that ‘substantial minorities of older children (42 per cent of 12-16 year olds)’ wanted to try things out that they’d seen in pornography. Couple that with a desire to test sexual identity and to join in with what it’s perceived that others are doing – and you can see why Shakil has ended up in his current state.

Then you have parents who are oblivious, overwhelmed or feeling powerless to prevent their children from acting in whichever way they want. On the one hand, the online world offers the opportunity to educate the young like never before, but on the other, there’s the risk of being exposed to extreme content. What is a parent to do? Shakil’s mum Carmel has been seen banning Shakil from using his phone while he revises for his exams – hence his current ignorance of what has been shared online. But turning off his access isn’t going to solve the problem long-term.

Carmel is, of course, from a generation unused to this ready availability of technology. But, hopefully, should she discover what has been going on, she will still be able to emphasise her own expectations and rules concerning how Shakil should be using his phone. There’s a real opportunity here for Carmel to be depicted as an understanding mother who can also readily explain the dangers.

EastEnders, like any good drama, has the potential to articulate the fears and worries of viewers who might not be able to express such concerns by themselves. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if both parent and child could sit down to watch Shakil’s story and come away with newfound insights about the problems the character is experiencing? Let’s hope that EastEnders gives these thorny issues the airtime they deserve and uses its influence wisely.

You can watch a 60-second rundown of this week’s episodes of EastEnders below.

And visit our dedicated EastEnders page for all the latest news, interviews and spoilers.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ll7hNiZTSc8?list=PLbs-Pk9dtKb9wGFelp78FklquqUuTnzni