This page provides information on the law relating to child sexting or sharing indecent images or texts of children and contains advice on what to do if your child has been involved in sexting.

What is sexting?

Sexting means sending indecent images (pictures and/or videos) of yourself or others or sending sexually explicit messages. Sexting is commonly known as “trading nudes”, “dirties” or “pic for pic”.

Sexting can happen on any electronic device that allows sharing of media and messages including smartphones, tablets, laptops or mobiles.

What does the law say?

In the UK the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16. However, it is an offence to make, distribute, possess or show any indecent images of anyone aged under 18, even if the content was created with the consent of that young person. The law is contained in section 1 Protection of Children Act 1978.

Examples include:

  • a child (under 18) sharing a sexual image with their peer (also under 18);
  • a child (under 18) sharing a sexual image created by another child with a peer or an adult;
  • a child (under 18) in possession of a sexual image created by a child (under 18).

“Indecent” means, for example:

  • naked pictures;
  • topless pictures of a girl;
  • pictures of genitals;
  • sex acts including masturbation; and
  • sexual pictures in underwear.

The police have said that sexting by children will primarily be considered as a safeguarding issue. The police must, by law, record all sexting incidents on their crime system but as of January 2016, they can decide not to take further action against the young person if it is not in the public interest. This will be at the discretion of the police.

What can a school do if sexting has occurred?

The government has issued statutory guidance to schools on Keeping Children Safe in Education 2019 which states that all incidents of sexting should be referred to the designated safeguarding lead and an investigation carried out with the full involvement of the young person and their parents. The school may refer the matter to the police and/or Children’s Services if the child has been harmed or is at risk of harm. For more information on what action Children’s Services might take, see our page on Children’s Services – Referral, Assessments and Outcomes.

The government has also produced Departmental Advice on Searching, Screening and Confiscation 2018 which states that schools have the power to search pupils for devices, search data on devices and delete any indecent images. For more information, see our page on School powers to search and screen pupils.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety has also issued advice for schools on developing procedures for responding to sexting incidents.

What should I do if my child has been involved in sexting?

If you find out that your child has been sexting, you can contact the Internet Watch Foundation, who can search for explicit images or videos of your child and remove them.

It would also be advisable to have an honest conversation with your child about the incident, to find out what led to it and how can it be avoided in the future.

Some of the reasons for sexting are:

  • peer pressure;
  • feeling pressured to sext as a way of proving their sexuality;
  • as a result of harassment, threats or blackmail;
  • seeking someone’s approval;
  • long distance/ online relationships, where there is a desire to have a sexual relationship;
  • confidence in their looks, which they want to share with other people.

Tips for parents

  • Discuss with your child the consequences of sexting.
  • Monitor your child’s online presence, especially social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
  • Explain that the images can land in the wrong hands, and warn them against online predators.
  • Encourage your child to open up about receiving or sending provocative images without your supervision.
  • Remind you child that there are essential and personal information that they should never share online such as address, photos and video footage.
  • Set clear rules about what the can and cannot do with their electronic devices.