Sexting: advice for professionals

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.

> Read our practice example about responding to sexting 

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 statement outlining your approach and commitment to protecting children from the dangers of sexting. You should also have 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 statement

A sexting policy statement should include:

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

School sexting policies should follow the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) guidance. More information about this is available in the Legislation and guidance tab.

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.

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 and make your nominated child protection lead aware of the situation as soon as possible.

Try to find out:

  • if it's an image, video or message
  • who sent it
  • who is featured in it
  • 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
  • how the young person is feeling.

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, your organisation may decide to handle the incident within your organisation. However you must make a child protection referral if:

  • there is any adult involvement
  • any coercion or blackmail is involved
  • the images are extreme or violent
  • the child involved has already been identified as vulnerable
  • any of the children involved are under 13
  • there is an immediate risk of harm to a child.

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).

The nominated child protection lead should make a written record of the incident and 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.

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, unless there’s a risk. It may also be appropriate to make a referral to a counselling service.

The NSPCC helpline is available 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.

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

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.

Schools can  play an important role in helping children to learn about safe boundaries, healthy relationships and the dangers of sexting.

Assemblies can engage young people in these topics by using:

  • expert speakers from external organisations
  • theatre groups
  • case studies, scenarios, visual images and video clips.

Our Speak out Stay Safe  service for schools provides trained volunteers who deliver assemblies and lessons to primary school children, helping them understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

In secondary schools, pupils should be encouraged to explore and discuss subjects such as:

  • relationships
  • respect
  • consent
  • risk taking
  • exchange of sexual messages and images between peers
  • bullying.

This can be included in personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) (England); personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) (Northern Ireland); personal and social education (PSE) (Wales and Scotland) and relationships and sex education lessons. Topics might be discussed during anti-bullying work and/or as a separate issue.

Secondary schools in England are required to make pupils aware of the risks involved in sharing and viewing explicit images and the law surrounding sexting as part of relationships and sex education (Department for Education, 2019).

We've worked with the PSHE Association to create lesson plans for young people aged 10-16 on personal safety and healthy relationships.

Online safety lessons are also a good way of:

  • alerting children and young people to the dangers of engaging with strangers online
  • teaching pupils how to reduce the risk of harm when using technology
  • helping young people understand what material is appropriate to share and what is not.

Our Share Aware lesson plans and teaching resources will help you teach children to keep themselves safe online.

Parents also play a big part in keeping their children safe online so need to be aware of existing and emerging technologies their children are potentially using.

Net Aware is a useful guide for parents on the types of social media their children might be using and their levels of safety.

In partnership with O2 we deliver online safety workshops for parents, to primary schools across the UK. Find out more on the NSPCC website.

When teaching these topics, it’s important to:

  • use realistic scenarios, film and DVD 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
  • include teaching about the role of technology in the PSHE curriculum and the online safety curriculum
  • review online safety procedures regularly to include developing technology and the technology most frequently used by children and young people
  • ensure teachers are knowledgeable about the technologies most often used by pupils so they are able to have relevant discussions with them
  • address sexting in the wider context of other issues such as sexuality, body image, bullying and wellbeing.

You could also use the following resources to get the conversation started:

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

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. In England there is also guidance to help professionals respond to sexting incidents (although the guidance is aimed at professionals in England, those in other nations may find the principles helpful).

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 under the age of 16.

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 16.

Causing distress

Sometimes young people who have been involved in sexting can be blackmailed – 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). It closes a previous loophole which meant communication couldn’t be classified as ‘grooming’ until an arrangement to meet had been made.

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.

Guidance for professionals

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.

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

Schools

The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (formerly the UK Council for Child Internet Safety) provides guidance for schools in England 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.

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) has produced Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media (CPS, 2018). This sets out the approach prosecutors should take when dealing with cases involving criminal offences committed by sending a social media message. The principles are also helpful for prosecutors in other nations. It includes communications targeting specific individuals, such as disclosure of private sexual images without consent and sexting.

These guidelines 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.

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) (2018) 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.

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

> Use our Making sense of relationships teaching resources

> Find our more about online abuse

> Find out more about online safety of organisations and groups

> Find out more about online safety in schools

> View It's Not Ok, teaching resources about positive relationships

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.