“Sexting…(is) common among teenagers in most schools. From time to time we hear about issues with sexting and recently a student reported that she had been asked for images by someone who had sent her images of himself. I’ve also heard about anonymous groups which seem to be popping up on social media and asking for images.” – A head teacher at a Dorset school
Just how common is sexting?
An article in Sec Ed emphasised a 2016 NSPCC/Office of the Children’s Commissioner England study which stated that 13% of boys and girls had taken topless pictures of themselves and 3% had taken fully naked pictures. Of the children who had taken sexual images, 55% had shared them with their peers. 31% of this group had shared such images with someone that they did not know.
Furthermore, The Times carried out an investigation of 50 schools and found that tens of thousands of children shared sexual imagery online over the last three years. It also revealed that more than a third of sexting cases involved children aged 12 and 13.
So, what can teachers do to tackle this ‘sexting crisis’?
How to respond to and manage sexting incidents
The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) published guidance in 2016 to help teachers and schools manage incidents of sexting by students under 18 years of age. “Sexting in schools and colleges: Responding to incidents and safeguarding young people” highlights the steps that need to be taken if sexting happens in your school:
A student who is affected by a sexting incident may inform a class teacher, the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) at the school or any other member of the staff. School policies must outline the protocols for such disclosures. These should follow the normal child protection policies. A student who is the subject of sexual imagery is likely to be distressed, especially if the image has been circulated widely and/or if they don’t know who has shared it or where it has ended up.
Depending on the evidence and the initial review meeting the school may decide the best course of action – whether to involve the police or any other agencies.
2. Handling devices and imagery
Teachers have significant powers to seize and search an electronic device if there is a good reason for doing so. If they believe that a device contains indecent images, that device can be examined and confiscated.
When it comes to viewing such imagery, teachers should not view it unless there is a clear reason to do so. This decision must be based on the professional judgment of the DSL and must be in accordance with the child protection policies and procedures. However, there are exceptional cases when such imagery may be viewed:
- If viewing the imagery is the only way to decide whether to involve other agencies
- To report the image to a website or app or a suitable reporting agency to have it taken down
- To support the aggrieved student or their parents to prepare a report
- The student has presented such imagery directly to the staff or if it has been found on the school network
3. Assessing the risks and deciding on a response
There are various reasons for students to engage in sexting: romantic exploration, coercion or boosting self-confidence. If a decision is made not to refer to the police or any other agencies, the DSL should assess the risks by considering key questions and then deciding on the appropriate response. Some of them are:
- Why was such an image shared?
- Was the student under pressure to produce such an image?
- Across which platforms has the image been shared?
- Was it shared with the knowledge of the concerned student?
- Does the student fully understand consent?
4. Involving parents
The decision to involve parents must be taken at an early stage unless it puts the students at risk. The decision not to involve parents should be made in conjunction with other agencies. The responsibility then lies with such agencies as to when they deem it appropriate to inform parents. DSLs may either work with students to decide on the best approach or support them in informing their parents themselves.
5. Preventative education programmes
The Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance states that schools should ensure children are taught about safeguarding, including online, through teaching and learning opportunities. Therefore, teachers could develop lesson plans and classroom activities to teach students about sexting.
This would help students develop skills, qualities, and knowledge to help them avoid such risks. Such initiatives by teachers also help in maintaining open lines of communication should they encounter such problems.