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Educating children about "sexting"

According to a report by the BBC thousands of children, including a boy as young as 5 years old, have been investigated for sexting. More than 4,000 children have been dealt with by police for sexting since 2013, with the majority mainly aged 13 or 14.

Many organisations believe 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.

The law

Under the Protection of Children Act 1978 as amended by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, 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 will 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 films with 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 has to be aged 18 or over).

Prosecutions

The legal risks were made clear a couple of years ago 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 sent her boyfriend an explicit photograph of herself which her boyfriend forwarded to others after a row. Both received police cautions.

That said, the National Police Chiefs Council has made clear that incidents involving sexting should primarily be treated as safeguarding issues. Where the police are notified of incidents they are obliged, under the Home Office Counting Rules and National Crime Recording Standards, to record the incident on their crime systems. The incident will be listed as a ‘crime’ and the young person involved will be listed as a ‘suspect.’ This is not the same as having a criminal record.

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 children’s behaviours and have normalised what might be unacceptable in an offline context.

His research indicates that children sext for a number of different reasons, such as to attract a boy/girlfriend, gain popularity and to shock or cause offence. Most do not reflect on the long term 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 that “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 on their own.

Education

Although the production of such imagery will usually take place outside of schools and colleges, these issues often manifest there. Schools, colleges and other organisations need to be able to respond swiftly and confidently to ensure that children are safeguarded, supported and educated.

Schools and FE colleges 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 what sorts of images are unlawful and the language used to describe these. Many will not understand what is meant by “indecent” and may consider the images themselves to be acceptable.

What legal responsibilities do schools and FE colleges have?

Educational establishments 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 the police.

Schools and FE colleges 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 as a safeguarding incident 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.

Generally, schools are not required to raise safeguarding issues or inform the police of all incidents involving sexting between children. Guidance produced by the UK Safer Internet Centre (detailed below) sets out a helpful checklist to assist schools and colleges reach the correct decision about police involvement. However the police must be informed if any imagery contains sexual activity by anyone under the age of 13.

Parents should also be informed of incidents unless there is good reason to believe that informing them will put the child at risk. This may be due to concerns about parental abuse or cultural or religious factors which would affect how they or their community would respond.

Where can I obtain further information?

Advice and information is available from a number of sources:

Sexting in schools and colleges: Responding to incidents and safeguarding young people

Childline: www.childline.org.uk They have an app which is free to download called “Zipit” which has some good one-liners children can use if they are asked to send naked or semi-naked pictures of themselves to others accessible here. 

Key Contact

Jenny Arrowsmith