A startlingly high percentage of teenagers claim to have received indecent images via text or social media. This phenomenon has increased in recent years due to the increase in smartphone technology and teenage smartphone ownership.
Sexting may be experimental among teenagers who consider it to be a 21st century version of flirting with a current or prospective boy/girlfriend. Sexting may also have aggravated elements including abusive and malicious behaviour.
Whether the intent is criminal or not, children engaging in sexting may be committing various criminal offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and/or the Criminal Justice Act 1988 including:
- Taking/permitting to be taken or making an indecent photograph of a child – when taking the photograph or opening the image, even when the image is of him/herself
- Distributing/showing an indecent photograph of a child – when sending/sharing the image to another person, for example a boy/girlfriend
- Possessing an indecent photograph of a child and/or possessing an indecent photograph of a child with a view to it being distributed by him/herself or others – when retaining the image
- Disclosing a private sexual photograph or film if the disclosure is made a) without the consent of the individual who appears and b) with the intention of causing that person distress (known as ‘revenge pornography’) – if showing/sharing/posting the image in order to humiliate the individual, for example after a relationship breakdown
Criminal sanctions which may be applied include: police caution, youth rehabilitation orders, or custodial sentences, depending on the circumstances including whether the offence is committed maliciously. Where a criminal sanction is applied, the offending child’s name will be added to the Sex Offenders Register, which records details of anyone found guilty of a sexual offence against a child.
Research shows that sex education in school is generally viewed by pupils as being out of touch with the reality of their lives. If this is the case, the danger is that children will turn to other sources to learn what they consider they need to know, including the internet where pornography is widely available.
While there is no single solution to the dangers of sexting, good quality age appropriate sex education is critical, alongside clear information about the risks of sexting by mobile device, social media and the internet.
Schools must exercise extreme caution when responding to suspected or alleged incidents of sexting so as to avoid causing unnecessary distress to individual children and to avoid unwittingly commissioning further criminal offences.
Schools have the power to confiscate, examine and store an electronic device if there is reason to believe it contains indecent images or extreme pornography. Such action should be conducted in accordance with the school’s safeguarding policy and any search conducted by the Head or a person appointed by the Head to do so, of the same sex as the child, accompanied by the Designated Safeguarding Lead. Indecent material must not be stored, reproduced or printed and should not be viewed unless there is a clear reason to do so. The DSL should always record the incident. Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to inform the police.
Schools should ensure that the sex education programme is fit to educate pupils in the risks of sexting and that safeguarding policies include clear guidelines on how to respond to incidents of sexting.