Sexting and the law

Posted on 17 January 2014

How can you help pupils understand the different consequences of sexting?

This week saw a teenager in Canada being found guilty of possessing and distributing images of child abuse by forwarding naked images of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. The case highlights the potential consequences of sexting behaviour by young people; not just for the person who created the original image, but also for those who engage in sharing and possessing such images.

From our work in schools and producing resources for secondary age pupils, we know that sexting is becoming a growing issue that schools have to tackle. Being well informed about the way sexting occurs, the laws and consequences around it and where to signpost pupils for more information is really important for school staff so that you can talk more openly with pupils about this topic as well as pass on practical advice.

What is it?

The term ‘sexting’ describes the use of technology to share personal sexual content. It’s a word-mix of sex and texting. Other nicknames you may hear might be ‘cybersexing’, ‘doxing’ or ‘selfie’.

The content can vary, from text messages to images of partial nudity to sexual images or video. This content is usually created to be sent to a partner, but can be between groups and can use a range of mobile devices, technologies and online spaces.

Sexting and the Law

If a young person under the age of 18 engages in sexting by creating an explicit photo or video of themselves then they have potentially created an image of child abuse. By sending this content on to another person, they have distributed an image of child abuse. By receiving content of this kind from another young person, they are then in possession of an image of child abuse.

Although the story that has emerged from Canada resulted in prosecution, this is not the preferred outcome in the UK. The Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland have stated that young people engaging in sexting should not face prosecution as first time offenders, but the situation will be investigated to ensure the young people involved are not at risk: 'Any intervention should have the welfare of the child at its heart and ACPO does not support the prosecution or criminalization of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them.' Repeat offenders and more extreme cases are reviewed differently, still with a focus on avoiding prosecution unless absolutely necessary.

Other consequences/risks

The case in British Columbia, Canada also highlights the other consequences such as the emotional and psychological damage that can be caused to the subject of the images, especially if they know that the images have been circulated to and seen by others. This can lead to negative or bullying comments which in turn can result in a loss of self esteem or even depression.

A young person’s reputation (both online and offline) can also be damaged by the sharing of sexting images. If the images have been shared online in the public domain then they could potentially exist forever, which can have longer term implications for a young person’s reputation and aspirations.

The Internet Watch Foundation conducted a study in 2012 where they found that 88% of images they identified as sexting images had been taken from their original location and uploaded to other sites, indicating a huge potential for sexting images to be distributed across different sites and imapct on a young person's online reputation.

Advice and resources

  • Peer pressure and Respect: Part of the reason the case may have led to prosecution was that the sending of the messages containing the images to others was deemed ‘mean, rude and antagonistic’ by the judge presiding.  So encouraging pupils to resist peer pressure and show respect for others is important in all their interactions online and offline. 
  • Know the Law: Equipping young people with knowledge of the laws around sexting is important, and TES have produced a very informative news article that highlights the main points of the case in Canada, as well as some questions for starting debates/discussions in the classroom on this topic.
  • Understand the Consequences: Equally important is for young people to understand the consequences of this behaviour, and to help schools do this we have produced a resource called Picture This; a drama based resource consisting of a playscript, lesson plans and supporting videos. By working through the resource, pupils can explore and become knowledgeable about the issues involving the law, emotional/psychological damage and reputational damage.
  • Know What to Do: The South West Grid for Learning have also produced a very useful guide for young people entitled ‘So You Got Naked Online?’ which offers information and practical advice on what to do after a sexting incident has occurred.
  • It’s Never Too Late to Tell Someone: Encourage pupils to speak to someone they trust if they are involved in a sexting incident. Although it may feel like the end of the world to a young person, there is always a way back. The quicker they speak to someone, the better the chance of managing the spread of the content.

Sexting can often feel like a very challenging topic to discuss with your pupils but hopefully these resources will make it that bit easier to start these discussions in your school. Sometimes the more challenging topics are the ones that lead to the greatest learning!

Useful resources

  • Picture This - Childnet's drama based resource for secondary teachers to educate young people about sexting and the risks. The resource consists of a playscript, three lesson plans and supporting video clips.
  • Today’s news, tomorrow’s lesson – An article by TES on the sexting prosecution in Canada. Also contains discussion points and links to other resources.
  • So you got naked online? - A guide for young people, produced by the South West Grid for Learning, offering information and practical advice for action following a sexting incident.
  • Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre - CEOP can provide advice to young people and parents/carers after a sexting incident has been reported using their online reporting button.
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