Tackling sexting

By Des Mannion

| 14 October 2016

Sexting, where people send naked or sexual images and videos of themselves via a mobile phone or the internet, is quickly becoming a major child protection concern.

As a result of the increase in affordable smart phones owned by children and the explosion of social media outlets targeted at young people, children are finding it easy to take and send pictures of themselves to others.

Research recently conducted by the NSPCC with 1,000 young people found that of those who have taken naked pictures of themselves, half have shared it with someone else and 31 per cent have shared it with someone they didn't know.

Although only a minority of children are sexting, those that are can be putting themselves at risk of harm once they lose control of their image. This could make them more vulnerable to bullying, harassment and exploitation from others. And even those children that aren't taking part in sexting may be experiencing pressure to get involved.

In 2015/16, Childline held 1,392 counselling sessions about sexting, which is a 15 per cent increase on the previous year, so we know that this is an issue young people are worried about - and that it is a growing problem.

As well as personal problems resulting from taking part in sexting, it can also have serious legal consequences. Laws relating to sexting may seem confusing, but the important point to remember is that it is illegal to take, possess, or share indecent (sexual or naked) images or videos of children.

A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that in 2015, more than 2,000 young people under the age of 18 were reported to the police for the possession, production and distribution of indecent images of children.

To take one police force - in 2013, only two children were reported to North Wales Police for distributing indecent images, while in 2015 there were 28 suspected cases.  

These figures indicate the scale of the problem and there has been a lot of concern that children and young people with no understanding of the law in this area may be criminalised. To overcome this, the Home Office has recently introduced new guidance and processes for police forces which, it is hoped, will ensure that children in England and Wales are not criminalised when they have acted without criminal intent.

NSPCC Cymru has also been working with police forces and the Welsh Government to try to support the roll out of these new approaches in Wales.

To support parents to have conversations, the NSPCC has created a sexting guide, which covers all of the key information that parents told us they want to know, including information on healthy relationships and the pressures that young people face, as well as tips to start conversations.

There is also a guide for childcare professionals about sexting, including how to write a sexting policy and what to do if a young person makes a disclosure.

Efforts are also being made in Wales to teach children from a young age, both in schools and out, about how they can use the internet safely, with a focus on digital competence in the school curriculum starting from September this year.

We are calling for compulsory age-appropriate online safety lessons for school children in Wales in a bid to teach children about the dangers of sexting, grooming and exploitation. We are also calling for a comprehensive online safety action plan in a bid to encourage the Welsh Government to work with digital providers to put online safety at the forefront of their agenda.

Hopefully, with the help of education providers and decision makers across the UK, a comprehensive framework will be put in place to protect the young people from some of the harm caused by the internet and social media while still reaping its benefits.

Des Mannion is head of service at NSPCC Wales

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