From the time our children are babies we teach them right from wrong, how to keep themselves safe and how to recognise danger and when they are at risk. However when it comes to the internet, it isn’t always easy to do this.

Girl with phone hiding face

As a virtual world, and one we may not fully understand, people are often unaware of the risks or are reluctant to inform and educate themselves to a standard where they can speak knowledgeably to their children about the internet. As a parent, being willing to do this will better equip you to discuss the issues with your children, giving them the facts they need and setting the boundaries that will keep them safe.

Children are accessing the internet and taking selfies at a younger and younger age, so you will need to have the conversation with them about online safety (including sexting) any time from about 5 onwards. Although you may not allow them unsupervised access to a smart phone or tablet, that doesn’t mean they can’t use a friend’s devices. And from a safety perspective, for older children it’s always better to teach them how to use the internet safely rather than try to regulate their access to it.

What is sexting?

Sexting involves sending sexually explicit images or videos between electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets or computers. This can include:

  • sending and receiving naked or semi-naked pictures of yourself or others
  • sexualised text messages or videos. 

Is sexting illegal?

It is illegal to take, possess or share 'indecent images’ of anyone under 18, even if you're the person in the picture. While police will always seek to avoid criminalising children involved in sexting, they need to focus on the well-being of the child/ren in question, which can result in serious actions being taken. 

Understanding why children are involved in sexting

So why do children participate in sexting? For some it will be a voluntary action, but it can also be due to coercive behaviour on the part of friends, peers or a boyfriend/girlfriend. Some of the main reasons are listed below:

  • "Everyone is doing it and it’s not that big a deal."
  • To show they are attracted to or have strong feelings for another person.
  • Pressure from a boyfriend/girlfriend.
  • The belief that only the person they send it to will see it.
  • Feeling bullied or coerced into doing it by others.
  • Feeling insecure and hoping by doing it they will be accepted by peers.
  • Experimenting with their own sexuality/pushing boundaries/taking risks.

Talking to your son or daughter about sexting

Communication is the key – talking openly about the differences between voluntary and coercive sexting, about the legal and personal consequences of both, and where and how they can get help for themselves or someone they know. Here’s a few ideas about how you can open up a conversation with your child:

  • Use something in the news, or relate it to something you have heard about a celebrity.
  • Listen to their views on sexting.
  • Explore how they might feel if a naked photo of them was shared on the internet.
  • Be clear that you are against them sharing a naked photo of themselves, not just because it’s illegal but because of the risks.
  • Make sure they know that sharing a naked image of someone else can be a form of abuse.
  • Agree on someone they should talk to if they’ve any worries (this may not be you, but should be an adult you trust like an older sibling, guidance teacher etc).

Where to go for help

If an illegal picture has been shared online, the website has a duty to remove the photo(s), but you can call Children 1st’s Parentline helpline on 08000 28 22 33 for support with this, or contact:

  • Childline works with the Internet Watch Foundation who can help you get the photos taken down.
  • ThinkUKnow has advice for parents on protecting children online.
  • You can make a confidential report to CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) if you're worried about a child being the victim of a sexual crime online.