What does the law say about sexting?
Creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, whether photographic or AI-generated (UK Safer Internet Centre, 2023), and even if the person doing it is a child.
England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own legislation on the sharing of indecent images of children. There is also guidance to help professionals respond to sexting incidents.
Sharing indecent images of children
In England and Wales, the Protection of Children Act 1978 makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement with an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph(an image made to look like a photograph) of a child.
Part 11 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it an offence to possess indecent images of children (whether or not you intend to distribute them).
In Northern Ireland, article 3 of the Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement with an indecent photograph or pseudo‐photograph of a child.
In Scotland, sections 52 and 52A of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 make it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (for any reason) or publish an advertisement an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 18.
Legislation across the UK does not define the term "indecent", but information about this is included in prosecution guidance (see below).
Sometimes young people who have been involved in sexting have been blackmailed, tricked or coerced – the person who received their image may threaten to share it more widely if the child doesn’t send them more images or money. Young people may also worry that if their relationship ends, the partner they shared their image with may share it to get revenge.
Across the UK, section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 makes it an offence to share private sexual photographs or films with the intent to cause distress.
In Scotland, Part 1 of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 makes it an offence to disclose publicly, or threaten to disclose publicly, an intimate photograph or film of another person in order to cause them distress.
In all UK nations, part 67 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it a criminal offence to engage in sexual communication with a child (under 16). This includes communication that relates to sexual activity and communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification (for example, grooming for sexual abuse).
Investigating indecent images
If an indecent image of a child shows a sexual act, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that the police must investigate to find out whether a sexual offence has been committed and act accordingly. This applies across the UK.
There is guidance for professionals in different sectors on responding to sexting incidents. These refer specifically to sexual images or video content which is produced, shared by or in the possession of young people under 18. It doesn’t cover sexual messages which do not contain imagery or the sharing of sexual imagery by adults. To clarify this, the guidance uses the term "youth produced sexual imagery".
Common themes across the guidance are:
- children and young people should not be unnecessarily criminalised for sharing youth-produced sexual imagery
- agencies should work together to share advice and information during investigations and help educate children about the risks of sexting.
In England, UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS), have produced guidance for education settings on children and young people sharing nudes and semi-nudes. The guidance includes:
- information for all staff and volunteers on what to do if they become aware a child has been involved in sexting
- advice for nominated child protection leads and senior leadership teams about how to respond to an incident of sexting
In Wales, the Government has also published guidance to support education settings in responding to sharing nudes (Welsh Government, 2021).
The principles of best practice in these guidance documents might also be helpful for schools in other nations and organisations in other sectors.
All incidents of youth produced sexual imagery which are brought to police attention should be recorded as a crime. However, in January 2016 the Home Office launched outcome 21. This allows police in England and Wales to record that a crime has happened but that it was not considered to be in the public interest to take formal criminal justice action. Crimes recorded under this code are unlikely to be disclosed on a vetting check in the future, although this cannot be guaranteed. Decisions about using outcome 21 should be taken by a senior and/or experienced officer.
Outcome 21 may be a good solution in cases where:
- a young person’s sexting was not abusive or persistent
- there is no evidence of exploitation, grooming, profit motive or malicious intent
(College of Policing, 2016).
Although police forces in Northern Ireland and Scotland are not able to use Outcome 21, they are likely to avoid prosecuting children unless it is in the public interest.
In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidance about indecent and prohibited images of children (CPS, 2020). The CPS has also produced Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media (CPS, 2018).
The guidelines on communications sent via social media state it would not normally be in the public interest to prosecute when sexual images have been shared consensually between children of a similar age; however prosecution may be appropriate in other scenarios, for example if bullying, grooming or child sexual exploitation are involved.
The Sentencing Council provides guidance about offence categories for the possession of indecent photographs of children (Sentencing Council, 2014).
In Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) includes information about indecent images of children in its information about types of sexual offences (PPS, 2021).
Guidance for young people
The Home Office has published guidance to help young people understand the law on making or sharing indecent images of children and young people (Home Office, 2019). It explains the legislation around sexting in England and Wales, gives definitions of some of the commonly used terms and tells young people what to do if they stumble across indecent images of children online.