Sexting: advice for professionals

Last updated: 01 Oct 2020 Topics: Online safety Safeguarding and child protection Child sexual abuse and CSE
Overview

Sexting is when people share a sexual message and/or a naked or semi-naked image, video or text message with another person. It's also known as nude image sharing.

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

If a child or young person originally shares the image consensually, they have no control over how other people might use it.

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

It's a criminal offence to create or share explicit images of a child, even if the person doing it is a child. If sexting is reported to the police, they will make a record but may decide not take any formal action against a young person.

> Read more about online abuse

> Read more about harmful sexual behaviour

> Find out more about understanding and responding to sexting in our How safe are our children? report for 2020 (PDF)

It’s important that anyone working or volunteering with children and young people understands the dynamics of sexting. You should know what to do if you ever need to help a young person who has received or sent an explicit image, video or message; or had an image shared without their consent.

> Read our practice example about responding to sexting 

We’ve put together some information to help you respond appropriately to incidents of nude image sharing. This includes:

  • what policies and procedures you need to have in place
  • what to do if you are concerned a sexting incident has taken place
  • reporting concerns and getting images removed from the internet
  • raising awareness about sexting
Policies and procedures

Writing a sexting policy and procedures

All organisations must have a clear policy statement about 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 sexting 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 about sexting 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 sexual 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 explicit 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.

Recognising and responding

Recognising concerns

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

  • shared an image of themselves
  • received an image from someone else
  • shared an image of someone else more widely.

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

Sometimes a child might tell you directly that they have been involved in sexting. Or they might mention something which gives you cause for concern. Other times you might notice that a child is behaving differently or being bullied, and the sexting might come to light when you try to find out what’s going on.

Sometimes you might overhear a conversation between children, or see something that makes you worried.

> 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.

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

Try to find out:

  • how the young person is feeling
  • 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.

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). If sexting is reported to the police, they will make a record but may decide not to take any formal action against a young person. Your local police force will be able to give you more information about this.

What to do with a sexting image

Never view any sexting images. If the image is on a device belonging to your organisation, you need to isolate it so that nobody else can see it. This may involve blocking the network to all users.

You should never copy, print or share sexual images of a child or young person (Childnet, 2016; UKCCIS, 2017a and 2017b).

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).

Continued support for 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.

Reporting

Reporting

When to make a child protection referral

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

You should make a child protection referral 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're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

The NSPCC and police will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

Getting an explicit image removed from the internet

To get an explicit 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.

You can support a young person to use the IWF and Childline's Report Remove tool. Report Remove helps children and young people to report and image shared online, to see if it is possible to get the image removed.

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

> Visit Net Aware to find out how to report to different social media providers

Increasing awareness

Increasing professional and public awareness

It's important that everyone is aware of what sexting is and how perpetrators of abuse can use nude images to harm children. There are a number of ways we can better protect children.

Get training

Anyone working with children needs to know the signs that a child may need help and how to act on concerns or respond if children speak out. 

You should keep up-to-date with the technologies children and young people are using, so you are able to have relevant discussions with them.

> Take our Online safety training course

> Find out more about online abuse

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

> Find out more about understanding and responding to sexting in our How safe are our children? report for 2020 (PDF)

> 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, online or offline.

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 facilitate openness in 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.

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

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

Involve parents and carers

Parents and carers play a big part in keeping their children safe online so they need to be aware of any existing and emerging technologies their children might be using.

Net Aware brings together the NSPCC's expertise in protecting children and O2's tech know-how to educate families on online safety. It helps parents and carers decide if an app, game or social media site is right for their child, explores some of the risks and gives advice to help keep them safe online

Help parents understand what sexting is, why young people might send nudes or sexual messages, and how they can talk to their children about it. It's important they know how to deal with any issues which their children may become involved in.

> Read the findings of our research to find out what parents know, don’t know and want to know about sexting

> Share our advice on sexting on the NSPCC website

> Read and share CEOP’s advice for parents

Legislation and guidance

Key legislation

Creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, 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 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 or coerced – the person who received their image may threaten to share it more widely if the child doesn’t send them more. Young people may also worry that if their relationship ends, the partner they shared their image with may share it to get revenge. There is legislation in the UK to protect them from this.

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 does not 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

The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (formerly the UK Council for Child Internet Safety) provides guidance for schools in England and Wales on how to respond to sexting incidents.

Sexting: how to respond to an incident (PDF) is an overview for all teaching and non-teaching staff (UKCCIS, 2016b).

Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people (PDF) is more specific guidance for nominated child protection leads, head teachers and governors (UKCCIS, 2016a).

There is also guidance for educational settings in Wales on responding to sexting incidents and safeguarding learners (PDF) (UKCCIS, 2017).

The principles of these guidance documents are also helpful for schools in other nations.

Police

The College of Policing has produced guidance to help police in England and Wales respond to young people who are sexting (PDF) (College of Policing, 2016). The principles are also helpful for police officers in other nations. The guidance highlights the need for police to prioritise safeguarding concerns.

The Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) has published a guide to help professionals and the public deal with incidents of sexting (PDF) (PSNI, 2018).

Outcome 21

All incidents of youth produced sexual imagery 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.

The College of Policing guidance suggests that 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).

Prosecutors

In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) provides guidance about indecent and prohibited images of children (CPS, 2018a). The CPS has also produced Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media (CPS, 2018b).

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, 2020).

In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) has published Guidance on cases involving communications sent via social media (PDF) (COPFS, 2014). This outlines where the boundaries lie between criminal and non-criminal social media communications.

This guidance states that in offences alleged to have been committed by children, young people under the age of 16 will only be prosecuted in exceptionally serious cases, for example if there have been serious threats of violence.

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 and resources

References and resources

Childnet International (2016) Cyberbullying: prevent, understand, 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 Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) (2014) Guidance on cases involving communications sent by social media (PDF). [Edinburgh]: Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2018a) Indecent and prohibited images of children. [London]: CPS.

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

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education: statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers (PDF). London: Department for Education.

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

Home Office (2018) Indecent images of children: guidance for young people. London: Home Office.

Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) (2018) Sexting and the law: a basic guide to help professionals and the public deal with incidents of sexting (PDF). [Belfast]: PSNI.

Public Prosecution Service (PPS) (2020) Types of sexual offences [Accessed 04/03/2020]

Sentencing Council (2014) Possession of indecent photograph of child/indecent photographs of children [Accessed 13/01/2020]

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2016a) Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people (PDF). London: UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS)

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2016b) Sexting: how to respond to an incident (PDF). London: UKCIS.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get advice from the website about:

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse:

Related NSPCC resources

> Read the results of our parents’ survey about sexting

> Find out more about online abuse

> Find out more about online safety in schools

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

> Find out more about promoting healthy relationships

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

Further reading

For further reading about sexting, search the NSPCC Library Catalogue using the keyword "sexting".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.