The word “sexting” has been in common use for less than seven years, but it is already an established part of our lexicon. It is used to describe the sending of sexually explicit messages or images usually via smart phones.
Data disclosed by West Midlands Police in December 2015 revealed that its force had investigated 70 children under the age of 18 over the previous three years for making, possessing or distributing indecent images. These involved children as young as 10 years old. The NSPCC believes that these figures are ‘the tip of the iceberg’ and that sexting is becoming a normal part of teenage behaviour.
What is also clear is that, despite a few well-publicised cases, most children simply do not understand the legal and wider social issues that can arise from sexting and need information and guidance to help them make appropriate choices.
Under the Protection of Children Act 1978 as amended by the Sexual Offences Act 2013, it is an offence to take, make, distribute, show, possess or advertise any indecent photographs of a person below the age of 18 years old.
As a result of effective child protection programmes, children often understand what is/is not appropriate behaviour in the context of adult behaviours towards them, but many do not know that the laws around sexting apply equally to photographs taken or shared by their friends and other children under the age of 18 and that they can be guilty of an offence simply by taking indecent photographs of themselves.
The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 legislates against so called ‘revenge porn’ where private sexual photographs and videos are shared with others with the intention of causing distress to the victim. In addition, the Serious Crime Act 2015 also created a new offence of ‘sexual communication with a child’ (a child is defined for these purposes as someone under 16 years of age and the offender aged 18 or over).
The legal risks were made clear last year when a 14-year-old boy was told that his details will be held on a police database for 10 years for the crime of making and distributing an indecent image of a child. He had sent a naked image of himself to a classmate.
Another case involved a girl under the age of 18 sending her boyfriend an explicit photograph of herself which her boyfriend forwarded to others after an argument; both received police cautions.
Which children are more likely to ‘sext’?
Andy Phippen, Professor of Social Responsibility in IT at Plymouth University believes sexting is a cultural reality for many children and that there is no such thing as a typical sexting teenager. He argues that the technological advances made over the last few years have changed childrens’ behaviours and have normalised what might be unacceptable in an offline context.
His research indicates that children engage in sexting for a number of different reasons, such as to attract a partner, gain popularity and to shock or cause offence. Most do not reflect on the longterm implications.
Teenagers interviewed by Mr Phippen told him that they might forward indecent images ‘for a laugh’ rather than out of malice. There also appears to be a high degree of self-justification and victim blaming amongst those who do share images of others with one boy commenting “she shouldn’t have sent it in the first place if she didn’t want it to go further”.
Fear of being judged is one of the key reasons why children do not report incidents to adults. This means that the child is often left trying to cope with the fall out themselves.
Schools are ideally placed to provide children with guidance and help and many, particularly in secondary education run regular sessions to reinforce key messages. Children need to understand the kinds of images that are unlawful. Many will not understand what is meant by “indecent” and may consider the images themselves to be acceptable.
Schools – legal responsibilities
Schools should have written policies setting out what teachers should do if they suspect that children are sexting. A designated safeguarding lead officer or teacher should be available to provide assistance and to make decisions on any issues which may need referring to the Local Authority’s Safeguarding team and/or the police.
Generally, schools are not required to inform the police of all incidents involving sexting, but that may change. A Government select committee is looking into this area and has indicated that new guidance will be available to schools soon. It also recommends that schools should have a compulsory obligation to report sexting to the police on the basis that this will act as a “disincentive” for children to engage in this sort of behaviour.
Schools should record all incidents of sexting and set out details of the actions it took or didn’t take and the reasons for this. Relevant factors that might determine whether the incident needs to be reported to the police include if:
- There is a significant age difference between the sender/receiver
- There is any external coercion involved or encouragement beyond the sender/receiver
- The child is more vulnerable than is usual
- The image is of a severe or extreme nature
- The situation is not isolated and the image has been more widely distributed
- This is not the first time children have been involved in a sexting act
- Other knowledge of either the sender/recipient may add cause for concern.
Advice and information is available from a number of sources
ChildLine’s free app, “Zipit”, has good one-liners children can use if they are asked to send naked or seminaked pictures of themselves to others.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection’s (CEOP)
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection’s (CEOP) Thinkuknow programme has some excellent age appropriate videos and provides a 24 hour service for individuals to report abuse.