What Is Sexting?

What safeguarding professionals need to know about Sexting.

‘Sexting’ is the exchange of self-generated sexually explicit images, through mobile picture messages or webcams over the internet. Young people may also call it:

  • cybersex
  • sending a nudie, picture or selfie
  • trading nudes
  • dirtie
  • pic for pic.

There are many reasons why a young person may want to send a naked or semi-naked picture, video or message to someone else. These reasons include:

  • joining in because they think that ‘everyone is doing it’
  • boosting their self-esteem
  • flirting with others and testing their sexual identity
  • exploring their sexual feelings
  • to get attention and connect with new people on social media
  • they may find it difficult to say no if somebody asks them for an explicit image, especially if the person asking is persistent

Sexting is often seen as flirting by children and young people who feel that it’s a part of normal life, but in fact it is a crime. The law in the UK currently states that the creating or sharing of explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child.

I am hearing increasingly from settings that dealing with forms of cyber bullying, including sexting, is taking up an increasing proportion of professionals’ workload around safeguarding. In particular some professionals have struggled to balance the welfare considerations of sexting with their legal responsibilities, and these issues have been highlighted in national cases which have made the headlines.

As of January 2016, if a young person is found creating or sharing images, the police can choose to record that a crime has been committed but that taking formal action isn’t in the public interest. In addition crimes recorded this way are unlikely to appear on future records or checks, unless the young person has been involved in other similar activities which may indicate that they’re a risk.

And over the summer the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) published ‘Sexting in schools and colleges, responding to incidents and safeguarding young people’ 2016. Over 200 organisations have supported its creation, including the Home Office, DfE, police, children’s charities, UK Safer Internet Centre, CEOP and teachers’ groups. The guidance is non-statutory, but should be read alongside ‘Keeping children safe in education’ 2016.

The new guidance crucially takes a safeguarding focus, rather than a simple criminal response, and allows schools to sometimes deal with incidents without involving the police. The guidance says that professionals should:

      • be guided by the ‘principle of proportionality’ and take a risk based approach
      • use the phrase “youth-produced sexual imagery” rather than sexting
      • understand that police involvement may not always be necessary and that images can be deleted and incident managed in school.

When assessing risk, professionals should ask the following questions:

      • Has it been shared with the knowledge of the young person?
      • Are adults involved in the sharing?
      • Was there pressure to make the image?
      • What is the impact on those involved?
      • Does the child or children have additional vulnerabilities?
      • Has the child taken part in producing sexual imagery before?