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Responding to sexting in schools and colleges

Posted by Karen Foster on Tuesday, 1 October 2019
Karen Foster
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Sexting is when someone shares sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages.

They can be sent using mobiles, tablets, smartphones, laptops - any device that allows you to share media and messages. Sexting may also be called: trading nudes, dirties or pic for pic.

Sexting is illegal for anybody under the age of 18 yrs, and the law is being broken if explicit images, videos or messages are sent or feature to anybody under 18 yrs. This law applies even if the explicit content is being shared between children, and is done so with consent.

Today’s children and young people document their lives online, and for them, there is a seamless connection between the online and offline worlds.

However, young people often do not understand the implications and consequences of sharing things online as they would offline - there is a disconnect between the two.

sexting on screen

Many children and young people will share sexually explicit images and messages with others; often their own peers, but sometimes with adults who have groomed them with the sole intention of sharing these images for their own gain, or to share within a paedophile ring. It is illegal for anyone of any age to create, possess, download or share sexually explicit images of a child, or to exchange sexually explicit messages with a child – and this law is being broken even if this is being done consensually between young people who are 16 & 17 yrs old and maybe in a legal sexual relationship and/or living independently.

Children and young adults will often be very creative with how they communicate with each other, often using coded acronyms such as SUGARPIC (an explicit photo) & 53X (sex), but also now emoji’s; changing its’ actual meaning to have a sexual connotation.

Spotting that sexting has happened, or is taking place can be very difficult, as it will often take place out of sight. However, once an image has been shared, young people will quickly get to hear about it, and therefore conversations amongst themselves will happen.

sexting school

It is vital that staff working with children and young people are alert to groups having conversations that relate to a specific student or students – listen out for keywords such as video, nude, one on one, uck, bowcat, tap, piped, head, snaking as these phrases will indicate that some sexualised behaviour may have taken place.

Schools need to ensure that staff are familiar with their safeguarding and behaviour policies so that they understand that sexting is a concern that needs to be addressed, reported and managed.

Young people who are sexting may be doing so for many reasons, including;

  • Joining in because they think that ‘everyone is doing it’
  • Boosting their self-esteem
  • Flirting with others and testing their sexual identity
  • Exploring their sexual feelings
  • To get attention and connect with new people on social media
  • Peer pressure – wanting to fit in
  • They may find it difficult to say no if somebody asks them for an explicit image, especially if the person asking is persistent and someone whom they want to impress or make “happy”
shadow girl

Schools need to ensure that they are up-skilling young people about the dangers of sexting, how to report concerns relating to them and/or their peers, the laws around sexting – especially for KS5 who are legally allowed to have sex.

They also need to ensure that they are training their staff about sexting and child sexual exploitation (CSE), so that they are able to recognise signs and indicators that it may be happening; CSE is happening more and more within peer on peer sexualised violence, and the taking and distribution of sexually explicit images is a major element within this form of harmful behaviour.

Support organisations such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre), NSPCC and The Children’s Society, have a wealth of and resources that are available for schools, young people and parents to access.

The rise of children and young people’s access to electronic and media devices means that they often have unsupervised access to social media platforms and communication methods, and this access is happening with children as young as 3 years old. With that unsupervised access comes opportunities for children and young people to be exposed to risks posed by their peers and adults, therefore any concerns identified by adults in a position of trust must be reported immediately in line with your organisation’s safeguarding reporting procedures.


About our Community Expert



Community Expert

As an experienced practitioner Child Protection, Safeguarding and Behaviour are key areas for much of Karen’s expertise and experience. She has been working with children, young people and adults for over 15 years in a multitude of settings which include dance and performing arts companies, local authorities, youth clubs, education and the welfare to work sector.

Karen’s main expertise is in safeguarding and behaviour management and modification strategies, with her most recent role being a national Safeguarding Lead. Karen has also been a school governor for nine years, two of which have been as Vice-Chair.

Karen has also run a behaviour unit (inclusive PRU) within an Academy and worked with the most disaffected students whose behaviour was disruptive who weren’t accessing the curriculum within the mainstream setting. She has and also worked with disaffected young people within a youth club, most of whom were at risk of permanent exclusion and carried out safeguarding audits whilst working for a multi-academy trust.

Topics: Safeguarding


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