Safeguarding against sexting

How youth workers can help educate young people about the risks of sharing explicit images.

The government has published guidance that explains to young people the law over the sharing of indecent images of children.

The move attempts to address the growing problem of young people sharing sexualised images of themselves and peers through electronic communications, such as sexting.

A recent report by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre found sexting is becoming the "norm" among young people. On average, the organisation receives one report a day of a child protection issue linked to sexting.

The guidance explains that taking, making, sharing and possessing sexualized images and "pseudo-photographs" - images created or manipulated by computer that appear to be a photograph - of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal, and outlines the punishments for breaking the law (see below).

It also defines the type of images and actions that contravene the law, and includes a series of short videos featuring young people talking about the harmful experience of viewing sexualised images of children.

Home Office guidance

  • It runs through different terms such as "making" or sharing" 

  • It summarises the law around indecent photos of children, with the crime of making an image carrying a possible 10-year prison sentence, and possession carrying a maximum sentence of five years

  • The only defence is for those aged over 16 who produce sexual photos for their own use within a marriage. But this defence is lost if the images are distributed

Youth work's role in preventing sexting

By Rachel Gardner, relations lead, Youthscape

Sexting is a global phenomenon that has been absorbed into young people's daily lives.

Being harassed by requests for nude images, or being the harasser, is accepted by many young people as part of being a young person today. One 13-year-old said at our drop-in clinic: "I'm at high school, it's just what happens now.'

Although a young person (mainly female) might not recognise they are being forced, they often talk about it being "impossible" to say no. Asking a teenager if sexting is an okay thing to do is invariably met with a shrug. Failure to comply means social suicide, even if getting involved increases the risk of unwanted attention from strangers.

Changing professional attitudes

A few years ago, I heard a group of sexual health experts talk about whether adults should stop young people sexting. The argument went along the lines of: "Every generation of teens wants to express themselves in sexually adventurous ways and this is just the latest phase enabled by digital technology."

Now the conversation has changed. We know we're not talking about sexual expression, but the sexual oppression many young people experience through peer sexual bullying and exploitation. It is vital we empower young people's confidence around consent so they know they have the right to choose not to share themselves in such a vulnerable way.

Educating young people

Ask any young person about their sex education and it is clear that the way we try to tackle the conversation of sexting doesn't always compute with their experiences. One of the challenges of talking about the impact of sharing sexual images is the inability to use visual cues.

Youth workers are in a brilliant position to innovate some new approaches to what consent and safety looks like in a digital age. Our informal voice enables us to create a different space to open up safe conversations about young people's real experiences. Many youth workers have developed specialist knowledge and training in this area. Whether in drop-in settings, self-referral projects or specialist programmes, working with a group of young people who share common experiences in this area frees us up to create targeted resources that are best suited for their needs.

Resource to aid discussion

Youthscape has developed IsItOK?, a resource to discuss these issues with young people. Visual cues (in the form of mannequins) and true-to-life text messages, all focused on helping young people articulate, critique and discuss the mindset that leads to sexting. Issues around the law are addressed. It asks: Why are these images and messages sent? Why are they requested by others? What is their potential impact? What do you do if you receive one?

Encouraging a group of peers to have these conversations using carefully designed images and messages empowers them to think critically when they are facing real decisions about whether to create, send, share or report images and messages.

When it comes to sexting, our task is to help young people feel more in control of their actions - to be more engaged with their emotions, more committed in their friendships, more convinced of their worth, more aware of their rights, more confident of their values, more inspired by their potential, more empowered by their hopes, more informed in their choices and more equipped for life in the 21st century.

Further reading

  • Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people, UK Council for Child Internet Safety

  • Crossing the line, Childnet International

  • Zip-it app, Childline

  • Thinkuknow toolkit, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre

  • FAQs on pornography and sharing sexualized images, PSHE Association

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