20 years ago, nobody had heard of “sexting”. Since then the number of smartphones in the UK has rocketed, with around 79% of all UK adults having access to one. In younger age groups, this figure is as high as 95%. As with everything technology related, the law has struggled to keep up to date with the rapid pace of change. A recent BBC Freedom of Information request showed that since 2013, there have been almost 4,000 cases of police investigations into sexting, where children under the age of 18 have taken explicit pictures of themselves and texted them to someone else. Shockingly, the youngest children investigated were just 7. Whether you’re a parent, a teenager or an employer, it’s important to understand the rules around sexting, and what could be shown on a disclosure check in the future.
What’s the Law About Sexting?
There is no specific sexting law, and any prosecutions come under either the 1998 Criminal Justice Act, or the 1978 Protection of Children Act. These laws lay out the penalties for distributing indecent images of children. Of course, when the legislation was written, it was not appreciated that children might be taking these images themselves on their smartphones. There’s also a mismatch between the age of consent – 16 – and the legal definition of a child.
It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to send a naked selfie, even if they are over the age of consent and sending it another 16 or 17 year old. Forwarding an image which you’ve been sent is also an offence. Under the Malicious Communication laws, sending a naked selfie to someone could also be classed as harassment if the police think the aim behind the text was to upset someone.
Police and Sexting
Police forces across the UK are clear that the last thing they want to do is prosecute lots of teenagers and give them criminal records for sexting. The emphasis is firmly on awareness and education, with schools and police joining force to get the message across.
Since 2017, the police have had a way of recording these types of offences under a code known as an Outcome 21. This is a way of giving the police more discretion. They can still record that a crime has been committed, but that no formal action such as prosecution was needed. Children aren’t criminalised, and don’t have to declare a conviction or caution.
Although Outcome 21 means that the teenage involved doesn’t have a criminal record, the information is still there on the police database. If in the future the person applies for an enhanced disclosure, this involves the police looking at all information on their files, not just convictions and cautions. However, information coded with Outcome 21 is treated differently. The general rule is that this sort of information is never disclosed, unless it was the start of a wider pattern of offending which continued into adulthood. For most teenagers, sexting is a one-off silly mistake.