What the law says
Sexting can be seen as harmless, but creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child. A young person is breaking the law if they:
- take an explicit photo or video of themselves or a friend
- share an explicit image or video of a child, even if it’s shared between children of the same age
- possess, download or store an explicit image or video of a child, even if the child gave their permission for it to be created.
However, as of January 2016 in England and Wales, 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.
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. Find out more about legislation on child abuse images.
Why do young people sext?
There are many reasons why a young person may want to send a naked or semi-naked picture, video or message to someone else.
- 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
What are the risks of sexting?
It's easy to send a photo or message but the sender has no control about how it's passed on.
When images are stored or shared online they become public. Some people may think that images and videos only last a few seconds on social media and then they're deleted, but they can still be saved or copied by others. This means that photos or videos which a young person may have shared privately could still be end up being shared between adults they don't know.
Young people may think 'sexting' is harmless but it can leave them vulnerable to:
An offender may threaten to share the pictures with the child's family and friends unless the child sends money or more images.
If images are shared with their peers or in school, the child may be bullied.
- Unwanted attention
Images posted online can attract the attention of sex offenders, who know how to search for, collect and modify images.
- Emotional distress
Children can feel embarrassed and humiliated. If they're very distressed this could lead to suicide or self-harm.
Aroundhave taken a semi-naked/naked picture of themselves. Over half went on to share the picture with someone else.
Explanation: An online survey with 1,001 girls and boys aged 11-16 across the United Kingdom found that 13% have taken a topless picture and 3% have taken a fully naked image.
Of the 135 children and young people who said they had taken naked or semi-naked images, 74 (55%) said they had shared them with someone else. 49 (36%) of the 135 children and young people had been asked to show these images to someone online. 15 (31%) of the 49 young people sharing images online did not know the person to whom they showed the image.
Sexting: advice for professionals
How to talk to your child about sexting
Every child is different, so your approach should be based on their character and your relationship with them. You could:
- outline your expectations and explain the rules of having a mobile, tablet or smartphone
- ask them what they feel is acceptable to send to people, if they’d be happy for you or a stranger or other children to see certain photos. If the answer is 'no', explain that the image, video or message is probably not appropriate to send
- make sure they're comfortable saying no, that they know their body is private and being asked to share explicit images is inappropriate
- explain to them about the importance of trust and consent in a healthy relationship. Tell them that it’s not ok for someone to make them feel uncomfortable, to pressure them into doing things that they don’t want to do, or to show them things that they’re unhappy about. Let them know that they can speak to you if this ever happens
- look at Childline’s advice about relationships and online safety together.
- tell them what can happen when things go wrong. Don't accuse them of sexting, but do explain the dangers and legal issues
- you may find it easier to use real-life examples, such as television programmes or news stories, to help you explain the risks
- ask them if they’d want something private shown to the world. Talk about the Granny rule - would you want your Granny to see the image you’re sharing?
- talk about whether a person who asks for an image from you might also be asking other people for images
- if children are sending images to people they trust, they may not think there's much risk involved. Use examples of when friends or partners have had a falling-out and what might happen to the images if this happens.
- make sure they know that you’re always there for support if they feel pressured by anyone
- explain that they can come to you if someone asks to send them a nude picture or if they receive an explicit message
- let them know that you won’t be angry with them but just want to make sure they’re safe and happy.
Sexting advice for children
Childline has advice for anyone under the age of 19 about sexting and how to stay safe online.
This app provides children with alternative images to send in response to a request for explicit images.
What to do if your child has been affected by sexting
If your child has been sending explicit images or videos of themselves, you may feel shocked, upset, angry, confused or disappointed. They’re also likely to feel anxious about talking to you.
Where possible, give yourself time to process the information and remember they’ll be watching your reactions.
- reassure them that they aren’t alone
- listen and offer support – they're probably upset and need your help and advice, not criticism
- try not to shout or make them feel like it’s their fault
- don't ask questions like "why have you done it" as this may stop them from opening up to you
- discuss the problem and the wider pressures that they may face, to help them to understand what's happened
- assure them that you’ll do all you can to help.
- remind them that they can always talk to Childline or another trusted adult if they aren't comfortable talking directly to you.
If your child has...
- ask them who they initially sent it to, their age, and if they know whether it’s been shared with anyone else
- if the image has been sent to another child, think about contacting their school to discuss the situation and make sure that it’s not circulated
- if the image was requested by an adult, contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), as this is grooming which is illegal
- encourage them to delete images from their social media accounts if they’ve have uploaded the image themselves
- If they’re sharing an image which somebody else uploaded, consider asking that person to delete it
- if the image or video was shared over the web, don't comment on it or share it as this may mean the image is seen more widely.
Ask them to get in touch with Childline. Together, Childline and the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) will try to get the image removed. Alternatively you can make a report direct to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF).
- Childline is a confidential service, but to make a report on a child’s behalf to the IWF they’ll need to confirm who the child is and their date of birth
- you’ll need to provide Childline or IWF with a link to the image. However, after you’ve have sent the link don't keep a copy of the image for evidence as it’s illegal to share or store child abuse images
- ask them if they know the person who sent it and their age
- if the image was sent by another young person you may want to help your child to speak to the sender in order to stop future messages. If your child agrees, you could also help them to block the sender on social media
- look at Net Aware for information and advice about this or contact our O2 and NSPCC online safety helpline on 0800 800 5002
- if the image was sent by an adult, contact CEOP, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, as this may be part of the grooming process.
Set up parental controls
The most important way to keep your child safe is to discuss the dangers of sexting and to be supportive if problems do occur.
You can also set up parental controls with your internet service provider or on your child's phone to stop them from accessing harmful content.
"I’ve just found out my daughter has been sent some nude selfies on this instant messaging app. She had been speaking to these people and they started sending her inappropriate images and asked her to send them things."
NSPCC helpline caller
Get an explicit image removed
- report the image to the site hosting it. Net Aware gives information about reporting to social media providers
- inform CEOP of the incident, if you believe the child is at risk of abuse
- contact the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) or ask the child to get in touch with Childline. Together, Childline and the IWF will try to get the image removed. Childline is a confidential service, but to make a report on a child’s behalf to the IWF we need to confirm who the child is and their date of birth.
Make sure your child is supported
Remind your child they can contact Childline at any time if they want to talk to someone about how they’re feeling, our trained counsellors can give free non-judgmental advice and support.
If your child agrees, you should inform their school. Schools can keep an eye on the situation and help stop images or videos being circulated. They can also offer support to any other children that've been affected. They may have a counselling service which children can self-refer to.
If you’re concerned that your child needs more support or if you’re worried they’re behaving in a sexually inappropriate way, you can also speak to your GP or you may have community based services available to you.
If you have any concerns about child sexual exploitation or grooming, contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
Remember you can contact the NSPCC helpline 24 hours a day to speak with a counsellor if you're worried about a child or need further advice on keeping children safe.
Who else can help?
CEOP’s Thinkuknow give advice for parents, as well as children and young people of different ages, on staying safe online. Thinkuknow have created short videos to help parents understand why children ‘sext’, how to talk to them about it and what to do if their child is affected.
The UK Safer Internet Centre gives advice and resources for parents and professionals on online safety. Their website has links to games and quizzes for primary and secondary aged children that encourages them to be safe online.
More support and advice
It's normal for young people to be curious about sex and relationships. Watching porn can be a way to find answers to questions.
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SPIRTO Project (Self-Produced Images – Risk Taking Online) et al. (2015) Young people who produce and send nude images: context, motivation and consequences (PDF). [Edinburgh]: SPIRTO Project (Self-Produced Images – Risk Taking Online).