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Why language matters: ‘Sexting’ or ‘sharing nudes’?

Last updated: 31 Oct 2022 Topics: Blog
Why language matters: improving safeguarding and child protection practice with words | Image: close-up of a teenager sitting on a bench using a mobile phone

From the NSPCC's Library and Information Service specialists

Advances in online technology have transformed the way that children and young people connect and communicate with others. Social media, chat apps, online games and other interactive platforms play a central role in children’s lives.1

But this wave of advances has brought more than just new forms of communication and entertainment. A whole range of words and phrases have been introduced into the vocabularies of both adults and children.

‘Sexting’ or ‘sharing nudes’?

A case in point is the range of terms used to talk about young people taking, sending or receiving naked or semi-naked images or videos.

It’s a potential safeguarding issue that’s often highlighted in research and case reviews. Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools in England2 found that many pupils, particularly girls, had experienced:

  • being sent pictures or videos they did not want to see
  • being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves
  • having pictures or videos they sent shared more widely without their knowledge or consent
  • being photographed or videoed without their knowledge or consent
  • having pictures or videos of themselves that they did not know about circulated.

Although less common, boys can, and do, also have their images shared. They can also be put under pressure to obtain and share nude images.3

Once a young person has shared an image of themselves, they no longer have control over how the image is used. It may be shared around peer groups, which could lead to bullying or isolation. Or perpetrators of abuse may use an image to blackmail a child or groom them for sexual abuse.

In the UK, it is against the law to take, make, show, distribute or possess an 'indecent' image or video of a child under the age of 18. This includes a young person sharing images and videos of themselves or of their peers (under 18). However, the legislation is there to protect children from abuse, and the priority in responding to an incident should always be to make sure that the child is supported and not at risk of further harm.

Despite, or perhaps partly because, of the complex nature of this issue, there’s no shared language with which to talk about concerns.

Professionals often use the word ‘sexting’ as an umbrella term to describe sharing of explicit messages, photos and videos. In a professional context, the term can be used to describe a range of different types of behaviours, which could be consensual or non-consensual, sexual or non-sexual.4 Professionals might also refer to ‘youth-produced sexual imagery’, ‘image-based sexual abuse’ or ‘indecent images.’

By contrast, the term ‘nudes’ is commonly used by children and young people to refer to all types of image sharing incidents.5 Other names include ‘nude selfies’ ‘pics’ or ‘dick pics’.

And it’s not just the choice of words which differs, the meaning can as well. For example, some children and young people consider the word ‘sexting’ to exclusively mean sending written, explicit messages to people they know, rather than including the sharing of explicit images and videos of themselves or others with a wider network.5

After looking at all the options available, NSPCC Learning chose to use the term ‘sharing nudes’ in our new elearning course for schools, in line with the language commonly used by young people themselves.

Why does the choice of language matter?

Given the potential risks faced by children online, it’s crucial that professionals feel confident communicating with children. This means both understanding the language used by children to describe their online interactions and using appropriate language that children can understand and relate to.

Professionals also need to accurately interpret and explain language when communicating with other professionals about online safeguarding issues.

Without a shared understanding of the risks a child is facing it’s hard to put in place the right measures to keep them safe.

It’s also important to avoid using victim-blaming or dismissive language when talking to young people. For example, the term ‘indecent images’ is commonly used in a law enforcement context but shouldn’t be used when talking directly to children.

Is there a right and a wrong way to talk about online concerns?

The online world continues to evolve at pace - and so does the language used by children and young people interacting with it. It can be challenging for adults to keep up to date with the latest terms and their different meanings. There’s also variation in the ways terms are used and defined in guidance across the UK.6,7,8,9

So, there may not always be a clear-cut answer as to which term to use in which context. There’s no one “right” or “wrong” set of words or phrases, although professionals should avoid using victim-blaming language.

Professionals should be aware of the potential pitfalls around choices of language and use this knowledge to communicate effectively with both children and other professionals.

It’s important to be as clear as possible and explain exactly what type of behaviour or interaction is being referred to. This will help to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to online harm and abuse. This should in turn ensure potential risks to children are recognised and responded to as early as possible.


Ofcom (2022) Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2022 (PDF). London. Ofcom.
Ofsted (2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. [Accessed 03/11/2022].
Estyn (2021) "We don't tell our teachers": experiences of peer-on-peer sexual harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales (PDF). Cardiff: Estyn.
Bentley, H. et al. (2020) How safe are our children?: an overview of data on abuse of adolescents (PDF). London: NSPCC.
UK Council for Internet Safety (2020) Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for educational settings working with children and young people. [Accessed 30/08/2022].
Ofsted (2021) Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. [Accessed 19/07/2021].
Scotland Police (2021) Protecting yourself on social media [Accessed 24/05/2023].
Welsh Government (2021) Responding to sharing nudes - guidance to support you. [Accessed 31/08/2022].
Crown Prosecution Service (2021) Child sexual abuse: guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse. [Accessed 30/08/2022]. 
Scotland Police (2021) Safe internet browsing and online gaming [Accessed 24/05/2023].

Key points to take away

  • Online technology and the language surrounding it evolves quickly. Try to keep up to date with current words and phrases and share your knowledge with other professionals.
  • Remember that terms used by professionals might not be recognised by children or could be interpreted differently. Always keep in mind the perspective of the child or young person when talking to them, and think carefully about your choice of language.
  • Having everyone on the same page right at the start can save time and help to minimise the risk posed to a child. If in doubt, always ask a child or professional what they mean, and be clear about what you mean when sharing information.