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Sexting: sharing nudes and semi-nudes

Last updated: 11 Jan 2024
Overview

Advice for schools and organisations working with children and young people

Sexting is when people share a sexual message and/or a naked or semi-naked image, video or text message with another person. Children and young people may also talk about sharing 'nudes', 'pics' or 'dick pics'. 

Children and young people may consent to sending a nude image of themselves. They can also be forced, tricked or coerced into sharing images by other young people or adults online.

Whether a child or young person shares an image consensually or not, they have no control over how other people might use or share it.

They may experience bullying or isolation if the image is shared around peer groups. Perpetrators of abuse may circulate a nude image more widely and use this to blackmail a child or groom them for further sexual abuse.

It's a criminal offence to create or share explicit images of a child. However the law is intended to protect children and not criminalise them. If sexting by a young person is reported to the police, they will make a record but depending on the circumstances they may decide not take any formal action. 

> Read more about preventing online abuse and harm

> Read more about harmful sexual behaviour

References

Training to help you respond to incidents

Our 3-hour CPD certified online course covers why children and young people may share nude or semi-nude images, the risks involved and what steps you need to take to manage incidents and respond appropriately. You'll learn about issues including consent, gender, additional needs and age variations, as well the latest legislation and guidance.

> Read more about Sharing nudes and semi-nudes training

References

Policies and procedures

Writing a sexting policy and procedures

All organisations must have a clear policy statement about sharing nudes or sexting. This should sit alongside and be embedded with your overarching safeguarding and child protection policy and your online safety policy. It should outline your commitment to raising awareness of the issues surrounding sharing nudes and supporting children who have been involved in sexting incidents.

You should also have clear procedures that detail the actions which staff and volunteers must take if a child makes a disclosure or if they have any concerns that a child has been involved in a sexting incident.

All staff and volunteers must be familiar with these documents and understand how to follow them. It's good practice to make them available to parents and young people - you might want to consider creating a young person friendly version.

> Find out more about writing a safeguarding policy

> See our example online safety policy statement and agreement

Policy statement

Your sexting policy statement should set out:

  • what sexting is
  • reasons why young people might create and send nude or semi nude images of themselves
  • how sexting can be used to harm or abuse a child
  • what the law says about sexting
  • how your organisation will raise awareness about the issues surrounding sexting
  • your organisation's intention to respond appropriately to any incidents of sexting that might involve the children and young people you work with.

Procedures

There should be clear steps for staff and volunteers to follow if they have concerns about or become aware of young people sharing nude or semi-nude images or videos of themselves or others.

Your procedures should cover:

  • how to talk to and support children and young people who have been involved in a sexting incident
  • reporting concerns
  • assessing risk
  • how to take appropriate action.

Keeping children safe should always be the focus of any response to sexting incidents.

Your sexting policy and procedures should follow best practice guidance. More information about this is available in the Legislation and guidance tab.

Anti-bullying policy and procedures

Children and young people can also experience bullying, when nude or semi-nude images are shared around peer groups.

Your anti-bullying procedures should include information about how you will respond to bullying that takes place outside your organisation, but involves children who know each other through your activities. This should include online bullying, bullying that happens on the way to and from school, and bullying that happens in other public places.

References

Recognising and responding

Recognising concerns

Children and young people who are involved in a sexting incident might have:

  • shared an image of themselves
  • asked for an image from someone else
  • received an unsolicited image 
  • shared an image of someone else 

This may have happened with or without the consent of all the people involved. And children and young people may have been coerced or pressured into giving consent.

A child might tell you that they've been involved in sending or sharing nudes. Or you might hear or see something that is concerning. For example, you might notice a child's behaviour has changed or you might overhear a conversation that indicates something is wrong. 

> Learn how to spot the signs that a young person is in an unhealthy relationship

Never wait for a child to tell you directly that they have been involved in sexting. You should follow your organisation's policy and procedures and make your nominated child protection lead aware of the situation as soon as possible.

> Read our practice example about responding to sexting

Talking to a young person who has been involved in sexting

If you're talking to a young person who has been involved in sexting, it's important to remain calm, reassuring and non-judgmental. Give them time to talk and check that you understand what they have said.

> Find out more about how to talk to a child who is disclosing abuse

> Read our blog post about why language matters when talking about taking, sending or receiving naked or semi-naked images or videos

Gathering information

Your nominated child protection lead should take the lead on responding to incidents of sexting, working closely with your senior leadership team. They should also liaise with agencies such as the police or children's social care as appropriate.

They should talk to the young people involved, to find out what’s happened, how they are feeling and what support they need.

Your nominated child protection lead should try to find out:

  • if it's an image, video or message
  • who sent it
  • who is featured in it
  • if there were any adults involved
  • if it's on an organisational or personal device
  • if it has been shared elsewhere.

Safeguarding and child protection should be the main concern of any investigation into a sexting incident and you should avoid criminalising young people unnecessarily (College of Policing, 2016). Police across the UK are unlikely to take formal criminal justice action against a child involved in sexting unless it is in the public interest. In England and Wales this has been formalised through the introduction of 'Outcome 21' which allows police to record that a crime has happened but that it isn't in the public interest to take formal criminal justice action. This means that if a sexting incident involving a young person is reported to the police, they will make a record but may decide not to take any formal action against the young person. Your local police force will be able to give you more information about this.

What to do with a sexting image

You shouldn't view any nude or semi-nude images. You should never copy, print or share sexual images of a child or young person (Childnet, 2016; UKCIS, 2020).

You should only search devices if the child is at immediate risk of harm. The Department for Education (DfE) provides guidance for head teachers, staff and governing bodies in England on searching electronic devices (DfE, 2018).

If devices need to be given to the police:

  • confiscate the device and call the police
  • disconnect it from WiFi and data
  • turn off the device (to avoid images being removed remotely via a cloud storage service)
  • store the device somewhere secure, such as in a locked cupboard or safe, until it is handed to the police.

(UKCIS, 2020)

Supporting children and young people

It's essential all children and young people involved in sexting receive ongoing support. You should also involve parents and carers, unless doing so might pose a risk to their child.

It may also be appropriate to make a referral to a counselling service or therapeutic support.

> Find out more about support for children who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour

The NSPCC Helpline is available to anyone worried about a child.

Our Childline website has a range of resources for children and young people. Childline also provides free confidential support through online chat, phone or email.

> Look at Childline's age-appropriate information about sexting and sending nudes

Recording and reviewing

Your nominated child protection lead should make a written record of the incident and all the actions taken.

Following a sexting incident, your organisation will need to review what happened and how it was dealt with to ensure that you learn and improve procedures.

References

Reporting

Reporting

If you think a child has been involved in sexting you should follow your organisation's policy and procedures and make your nominated child protection lead aware of the situation as soon as possible.  Your nominated child protection lead should then make a decision about whether a child protection referral is needed.

When to make a child protection referral

A considered and detailed process should be followed when deciding whether or not to make a child protection referral about an incident of nude image sharing.

A child protection referral should be made if:

  • the incident involves an adult
  • there is reason to believe that a child or young person has been coerced, blackmailed or groomed, or there are concerns about their capacity to consent (for example, if they have a learning disability)
  • what you know about the image(s) suggests the content depicts sexual acts which are unusual for the young person’s developmental stage, or are violent
  • the image(s) involves sexual acts and any child in the image(s) is under 13
  • you have reason to believe a child or young person is at immediate risk of harm due to the sharing of the image, for example if they are presenting as suicidal or self-harming.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999

If you think a child has been or is at risk of harm, but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns. You can:

  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our child protection specialists will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police if there are abusive or aggravating factors (such as evidence of grooming, exploitation or extensive, inappropriate sharing)
  • Inform CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command) if you think a child has been groomed or sexually abused online. You can report on their website.

Your referral will be risk assessed, and action taken to protect the child as appropriate; either through statutory involvement or other support. 

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedure or you're concerned about how child protection issues are being handled in your own, or another, organisation, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

> Find out about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

When you're not sure

The NSPCC Helpline can help when you're not sure if a situation needs a safeguarding response. Our child protection specialists are here to support you whether you’re seeking advice, sharing concerns about a child, or looking for reassurance.

Whatever the need, reason or feeling, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk

Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you. Depending on what you share, our experts will talk you through which local services can help, advise you on next steps, or make referrals to children's services and the police.

>Find out more about how the NSPCC Helpline can support you

Getting an explicit image removed from the internet

To get a nude or semi-nude image removed from the internet you can:

  • report the image to the site or network hosting it
  • contact the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
  • encourage the child or young person to get in touch with Childline.

Young people under 18 who are worried that a sexual image or video of them may have been shared online can use Childline and IWF's Report Remove tool to see if it can be taken down.

> Find out more about how you can support young people to use Report Remove

> See Childline's advice for young people on reporting nude images online

Parents and carers can find information on the NSPCC website that helps them understand the risks and support their child if they've been sending, sharing or receiving nude images.

> See our advice for parents and carers on the NSPCC website

Review and update your policies and procedures

It's important to review and update your policies and procedures following any incidents, to make sure they include any new information learned and current best practice. 

References

Increasing awareness

Increasing professional and public awareness about nude image sharing

Raising awareness about sexting and how perpetrators of abuse can use nude images to harm children is important to help keep children safe. You can help do this by:

  • getting training
  • talking to children 
  • involving parents and carers.

Get training

Anyone working or volunteering with children needs to be able to recognise the signs that a child may need help and know how to act on concerns. 

Keeping up-to-date with what children are doing online will help you have relevant discussions with them.

> Take our online safety training course

> Take our sharing nudes and semi-nudes training course

> Learn more about developmentally appropriate and healthy child sexual behaviour and how to respond to inappropriate sexualised behaviour

> Sign up to CASPAR to keep up-to-date with new developments in child protection

Talk to children

It's important to talk to children and young people about healthy relationships, consent, setting safe boundaries and the benefits and risks of the online world. Make sure they know who they can talk to if anything ever makes them feel uncomfortable.

When discussing these topics, it's important to be non-judgmental and listen to children and young people's views.

  • Use realistic scenarios and resources.
  • Use culturally-sensitive materials.
  • Use gender-sensitive materials to address gender-specific issues.
  • Work in small groups to help encourage open discussion, for example if an issue is gender specific.
  • Discuss sexting in the wider context of other issues such as sexuality, relationships, consent, body image, bullying and wellbeing.
  • Be sensitive to the needs of any children for whom the discussions might be particularly upsetting, for example those who have previously been involved in a sexting incident.
  • Use language that young people understand, and that isn’t victim-blaming or dismissive (UCKIS, 2022).

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

> Read our guidance on how to have difficult conversations with children and young people

> Read our blog post about why language matters when talking about taking, sending or receiving naked or semi-naked images or videos

> See our Talk Relationships elearning, lesson plans and helpline to help teachers deliver relationships and sex education

Support parents and carers

You can help parents and carers keep their children safe online by making sure they are aware of possible risks to their child and know what support is available if there's ever a problem.

The NSPCC website has information and advice for parents and carers on the apps, games and social media sites children are using.

This includes guides to help parents and carers make informed decisions about keeping their child safe online. There is also detailed information about sexting and why young people might send nudes and how they can talk to them about it. 

The Report Remove tool can also be used to report if an image or video has been shared without permission and can help remove them from the web.

> Signpost parents and carers to information about online safety on the NSPCC website

> Share our advice for parents about sexting on the NSPCC website

References

Legislation and guidance

Key legislation

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).

Causing distress

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.

Sexual communication

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.

Key guidance

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.

Schools

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

(UKCIS, 2020).

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.

Outcome 21

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.

Prosecutors

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.

References

References

Childnet International (2016) Cyberbullying: understand, prevent and respond: guidance for schools (PDF). [London]: Childnet International.

College of Policing (2016) Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery (PDF). [London]: College of Policing.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2018) Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. [London]: CPS.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2020) Indecent and prohibited images of children. [London]: CPS.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Searching, screening and confiscation: advice for schools. London: Department for Education.

Home Office (2019) Indecent images of children: guidance for young people. London: Home Office.

Public Prosecution Service (PPS) (2021) Types of sexual offences. [Accessed 23/06/2021].

Sentencing Council (2014) Possession of indecent photograph of child/indecent photographs of children. [Accessed 23/06/2021].

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2020) Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people. [London].

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2022) Challenging victim blaming language and behaviours when dealing with the online experiences of children and young people. [Accessed 19/12/2023].

UK Safer Internet Centre (2023) Children must understand risk as UK schools say pupils abusing AI to make sexual imagery of other children. [Accessed 04/12/2023].

Welsh Government (2021) Responding to sharing nudes - guidance to support you. [Accessed 05/07/2021].