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Changing risks in a changing world – the dangers of sexting

By Andy Burrows, Associate Head of Child Safety Online at the NSPCC

Keys, wallet, mobile are the final checks most of us now make before leaving home. This reflects how, in the space of 20 years, the smartphone has become an essential part of our daily lives. Whether it’s for surfing the web, checking social media, playing games or just having a chat we increasingly rely on the computer in our pockets to keep us connected.

Young people in particular are wedded to their mobiles, with one recent survey showing that 92% of UK teenagers own a smartphone and check them up to a staggering 90 times a day.* The same survey also showed that 39% of young people take and share images using their mobile on a daily basis. Most of these are harmless; however there are enough cases of teenagers sharing self –generated sexual images to cause serious concern for parents and teachers and in exceptional circumstances, for police.  

Part of the issue is that young people simply aren’t aware of the potentially devastating consequences and the legal implications that now come with ‘sexting’. Once a young person sends a self –generated sexual image they lose control over who views or shares it further as well as risking it entering the public domain which can lead to bullying, harassment and even blackmail.

Importantly creating, sharing or possessing an explicit image of a child is illegal – even if the person is a child themselves. That means both the young person who creates the image, along with those who receive and share it are breaking the law. Sensibly in England and Wales the majority of cases won’t see the police pursue a prosecution on the basis it is not in the public interest. Home Office guidance, which the NSPCC supports, instead suggests the matter should usually be treated as a safeguarding issue and dealt with by the local authorities and the school.

The good news is there are positive steps young people can take if they have been involved in sexting and their images have leaked into the public domain. If they know where the image is hosted, for example on a social network – they should report it directly so the image can be taken down. If they are unsure where the image is hosted, there is still action that can be taken to increase the chances of its removal.  In this instance the young person should make contact with Childline, who can work with the Internet Watch Foundation to try and locate and have the image removed.

Parents also play a key role in reducing the chances of their child being exposed to the risks above.  Regular conversations about their online lives will make it more likely that your child will tell you if they have been caught up in a case of sexting. It’s also a good idea to make sure they understand they can talk to Childline about anything that’s causing them concern so they always have another avenue to turn to.  

If a child tells you they have been involved in a case of sexting and the situation is out of control it’s important you remain calm and supportive, offering reassurance that they are not alone. Together you should then work out the best way to get the images removed before then focusing on the child’s recovery and rebuilding their all important self-esteem.

If you need more advice about sexting or keeping children safe online you can contact the O2 NSPCC helpline on 0800 800 5002. Young people can contact Childline online or on 0800 1111.

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Footnotes

* Survey conducted by Deloitte on UK consumer mobile usage 2016/17 and can be found here: https://www.deloitte.co.uk/mobileuk/assets/img/download/global-mobile-consumer-survey-2017_uk-cut.pdf