Sexting - what parents should know and how they can help

Nick Titchener
20 October, 2017 : 09:05
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Almost every teenager now either owns a mobile phone or has access to one and as parents, we all know how attached our children are  to these devices. They are often the first thing they look at in the morning and the last thing that they will see or use before they go to sleep.

Mobile devices and smartphones are capable of some great things, such as helping our children to communicate with us, their friends and the wider outside world. They are also capable of helping our children to learn, to expand their horizons and broaden their knowledge. Mobile phones are ever-evolving and the technology is changing as quickly as our children grow up, as illustrated by the newly announced iPhone X with its myriad technological advances.

The availability of technology does however bring its own problems. The exchange of messages and media between mobile devices often cause problems among teenagers and even young children, with the increasing prevalence of sexual texts and sharing of sexual related content giving rise to a phenomenon known as ‘sexting’.

What constitutes 'sexting'?

Some children believe ‘sexting’ simply means sending flirty written texts, with the sharing of images, or sending ‘nudes’, a separate entity. As a result, many parents are unclear about what is illegal or unwise.

The NSPCC reported that 3% of 11-16 year olds had taken fully naked pictures of themselves, with a smaller proportion reporting sharing the images, so the issue is prevalent even among young teens.

Where the content is not just written text that may contain sexual content or references, but also the exchange of explicit images or videos, the messages or distribution of media can stray into the realm of criminal law and become of the utmost concern to both schools and the police. Today’s children have not changed, they have the exactly same emotions and desires, but technology has, and it is important for parents to understand the risks.

Is 'sexting' a criminal offence?

It is a criminal offence to make, distribute or be in possession of an indecent image of a person under the age of 18, even where that is done or possessed by someone of the same age as the person within the media content. 
In the instance that a boyfriend and girlfriend under the age of 18 were to take explicit ‘selfies’ of themselves and send them to each other, the recipient could find themselves in possession of indecent images of a child, even if those images are sent consensually and in private.

Why do young people 'sext'?

While there is no single reason why a teenager may exchange sexual messages or images, it is often as a result of:

  • Peer pressure
  • Exploring their sexual feelings
  • Belief it may boost their self-esteem.

The risks of sexting

Once an image has been shared online, it becomes public. Even if a sender or recipient deletes the image, it may have already been copied or shared and your son or daughter will have no control over it. Not only can sexting be a criminal offence, but there are other consequences for your child, which may include:

  • Bullying from peers 
  • Unwanted attention – once the photos are online, they could easily fall into the wrong hands
  • Blackmail
  • Distress which could, in time, lead to depression.

How to talk to your child about the risks of sexting and what you can do to protect them

Whilst you may feel uncomfortable around the topic, it is vitally important that you talk to your child about the risks of sexting, even if you can’t imagine them ever being involved. 

Emphasise that they can talk to you about anything they might be feeling. Keep it as a laid-back chat in a relaxing setting. You could start by asking them what they know about sexting. Perhaps they might have heard alternative names: ‘trading nudes’, ‘dirties’ or ‘pic for pic’.

You could tell them that children their age have discovered that intimate photos of themselves have been shared with large groups of people by someone they thought they trusted. You could use a real new story or TV storyline as an example. You could then ask them to imagine what that must feel like, and discuss the emotions that would result. The NSPCC suggests the ‘Granny rule’ –  would you mind your Granny seeing the image you are sharing? If so, don’t share it!

Don’t expect the chat to be long and respect how your son or daughter responds, as they will most likely find it embarrassing. Tell them to come to you if someone sends them an image or message that makes them feel uncomfortable and that you won’t be judgemental or angry with them. Explain that you just want them to feel safe and happy.

Guidance and advice

In November 2016, the College of Policing issued guidance as to how matters such as sexting should be handled from an investigative perspective, in order to educate and inform both education providers and law enforcement agencies. This guidance was issued alongside the advice provided to schools by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS).

The UKCCIS guidance, plus that provided by the College of Policing, state that a measured and proportionate approach should be adopted when matters such as sexting come to light. There is a natural concern that young people should not be criminalised and stigmatised as a consequence of adolescent curiosity or immaturity.

The context of any sexting between young people or groups of young people needs to be carefully considered. For safeguarding reasons and to protect the welfare of children, such behaviour is always of concern.

The College of Police guidance makes it clear that, ‘Most offences involving sexual activity connected to children will raise significant safeguarding concerns.’

If the police do get involved in relation to such behaviour, in accordance with Home Office Counting Rules, it will be officially recorded as a crime, which in itself can have implications for the young people concerned. 
With the inevitable police investigation that will follow, it is imperative to ensure that the young people involved are properly advised and assisted to ensure that they are not criminalised as a consequence.

If a young person is cautioned or given a form of Youth Diversion to Youth Offending Services, this can have long term implications as far as the child is concerned, both in connection with the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and even the Sexual Offences Registration requirements.

Further help

Ensuring that both parents and children are advised of the risks associated with sexting is vital and ensuring that they are properly advised if the police become involved is imperative. As a parent, you can always talk to school authorities confidentially and seek legal advice.

Childline’s advice for children and teenagers discusses the risks of sexting and encourages children to talk to their parents about it, or to call the free Childline number if they ever need advice.

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Nick Titchener
Nick Titchener is a dedicated criminal solicitor, overseeing the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors and someone that has considerable experience in dealing with the issues that can arise from sexting or the sharing of indecent images between children where it has come to the attention of the authorities or the police are involved.

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