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Sexting

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 is the sending or posting of naked or semi-naked images, videos, or live streams by young people under the age of 18. This could be via social media, gaming platforms, chat apps, or forums. It could also involve device sharing via services such as Apple’s AirDrop, which works offline. The term ‘nudes’ is used because it is most commonly understood by young people and more accurately describes all types of image sharing incidents. Children and teenagers may use terms such as ‘dick pics’ or ‘pics’.

The reasons for taking and sharing naked and semi-naked images, videos, and live streams are not always sexual or criminal. These images can be created and shared consensually by young people who are in relationships as well as those who are not. A young person in a consensual relationship may also be coerced into sharing an image with their partner. Incidents may also occur in the following locations:

  • children and young people find nudes and semi-nudes online and share them claiming to be from a peer
  • children and young people digitally manipulate an image of a young person into an existing nude online
  • images created or shared are used to abuse peers e.g. by selling images online or obtaining images to share more widely without consent to publicly shame

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. ‘Indecent’ is not defined in legislation. When cases are prosecuted, the question of whether any photograph of a child is indecent is for a jury, magistrate or district judge to decide.

Indecent imagery does not always mean nudity; however, images are likely to be defined as such if they meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • nude or semi-nude sexual posing (e.g. displaying genitals and/or breasts or overtly sexual images of young people in their underwear)
  • someone nude or semi-nude touching themselves in a sexual way
  • any sexual activity involving a child
  • someone hurting someone else sexually
  • sexual activity that includes animals

The non-consensual sharing of private sexual images or videos with the intent to cause distress is also illegal. The relevant legislation is contained in section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.

Terms such as ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’ are also used to refer to specific incidents of nudes and semi-nudes being shared. However, these terms are more often used in the context of adult-to-adult non-consensual image sharing offences outlined in s.33-35 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 and s.67A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

What is the role of the Police? 

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has made it clear that incidents involving sharing nudes and semi-nudes should have an immediate focus on safeguarding children. In many cases, education settings may respond to incidents without involving the police, for example where an incident can be defined as ‘experimental’ and there is no evidence abusive or aggravating elements. The police may, however, need to be involved in some cases to ensure thorough investigation, including the collection of all evidence (for example, through multi-agency checks). Even when the police are involved, a criminal justice response and formal sanction against a child or young person would only be considered in exceptional circumstances.

What can a school do if sexting has occurred?

When an incident involving nudes and semi-nudes comes to the attention of any member of staff in an education setting:

  • the incident should be referred to the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) as soon as possible
  • the DSL (or equivalent) should hold an initial review meeting with appropriate staff. This may include the staff member(s) who heard the disclosure and the safeguarding or leadership team who deal with safeguarding concerns
  • there should be subsequent interviews with the children or young people involved (if appropriate)
  • parents and carers should be informed at an early stage and involved in the process in order to best support the child or young person unless there is good reason to believe that involving them would put the child or young person at risk of harm
  • a referral should be made to children’s social care and/or the police immediately if there is a concern that a child or young person has been harmed or is at risk of immediate harm at any point in the process.

The initial review meeting should consider the initial evidence and aim to establish:

  • whether there is an immediate risk to any child or young person if a referral should be made to the police and/or children’s social care
  • if it is necessary to view the image(s) in order to safeguard the child or young person – in most cases, images or videos should not be viewed
  • what further information is required to decide on the best response
  • whether the image(s) has been shared widely and via what services and/or platforms. This may be unknown
  • whether immediate action should be taken to delete or remove images or videos from devices or online services
  • any relevant facts about the children or young people involved which would influence risk assessment
  • if there is a need to contact another education, setting or individual
  • whether to contact parents or carers of the children or young people involved – in most cases they should be involved

The decision to respond to the incident without involving the police or children’s social care should only be made in cases where the DSL (or equivalent) is confident that they have enough information to assess the risks to any child or young person involved and the risks can be managed within the education setting’s pastoral support and disciplinary framework and, if appropriate, their local network of support.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety has issued advice for schools on developing procedures for responding to sexting incidents which outlines the process in detail. 

There is also departmental advice on Searching, Screening and Confiscation 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.

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

This information is correct at the time of writing, 22nd October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

On this page

This information is correct at the time of writing, 22nd October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

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