Sexting: advice for professionals

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018 Topics: Online safety Safeguarding and child protection Child sexual abuse and CSE

Sexting is the exchange of sexual messages or self-generated sexual images or videos through a mobile phone network or the internet.

Once a message or image has been shared, the sender has no control about how it’s used. Sexting can leave a child vulnerable to bullying, blackmail, online grooming or abuse. It’s also a criminal offence to create or share explicit images of a child, even if the person doing it is a child.

> Read more about online abuse

> Read more about harmful sexual behaviour

It’s important that anyone working with children and young people understands the dangers of sexting and knows what to do if you ever need to help a young person who has received or sent an explicit image, video or message.

It's essential that your organisation has a clear policy in place to protect children and clear procedures detailing what action must be taken if a child speaks out. All staff and volunteers should be familiar with these documents.

Policies and procedures

Writing a sexting policy and procedures

All organisations must have a clear policy outlining your approach and commitment to protecting children from the dangers of sexting. There should also be clear procedures that detail the actions which must be taken if a child makes a disclosure about sexting.

All staff and volunteers must be familiar with these documents and parents and young people should be able to access them. This should sit alongside your overall safeguarding policy.

> Find out more about writing a safeguarding policy

Policy

A sexting policy should include:

  • what sexting is
  • why young people do it
  • what the law says
  • how the organisation will protect children from the risks.

Procedures

These are 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.

They should cover how to report, review, assess and take action on sexting.

Safeguarding children should always be the focus of all actions.

If a child speaks out

If a child speaks out about sexting

If a young person tells you they’ve been involved with sexting, it's important to remain calm and be understanding. You should follow your organisation's policy and procedures.

Try and find out:

  • if it's an image, video or message
  • how the young person is feeling
  • how widely has the image been shared and with whom
  • if there were any adults involved
  • if it's on an organisational or personal device.

The College of Policing recommends that safeguarding should be the main concern of any investigation into a sexting incident and that we should avoid criminalising young people unnecessarily.

> Read the College of Policing’s briefing on police action in response to sexting (PDF)

If the images were not intended to cause harm and the young people involved have given consent, you may decide to handle the incident within your organisation.

Avoid looking at the image, video or message. If it's 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.

Details of the incident and the actions taken must be recorded in writing by the person responsible for child protection within the organisation.

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.

Continued support for children and young people

It’s essential children and young people receive ongoing support. You should also involve parents, unless there’s a risk. It may also be appropriate to make a referral to a counselling service.

The NSPCC helpline is available 24/7 to anyone worried about a child. Children can contact Childline.

Reporting

Reporting

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) of the incident. You can report on their website.

Services 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

To get an explicit image removed you can:

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

Childline can make a report to the IWF on a child’s behalf. Although Childline is a confidential service, in order to make a report we need to confirm who the child is and their date of birth. To confirm their identity young people can email Childline with a copy of their passport. This information will not be passed on without the child’s permission.

> 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 it can harm children. There are a number of ways we can help 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. 

> Take our Keeping Children Safe Online e-learning course

> Find out more about online abuse

> Use our Harmful sexual behaviour framework

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

Talk to children

Children need to understand the dangers of sexting, the importance of healthy relationships and know who to talk to if anything makes them feel uncomfortable.

You could use the following resources to get the conversation started.

> Use our Share Aware resources and lesson plans for primary schools

> Remind children that they can talk to Childline and share our Childline wallet cards and posters

> Direct children to the Childline website’s advice on sexting

Involve parents

Parents need to be educated about online safety so that they can protect their children. They should know what sexting is and understand 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