Safeguarding: Image-sharing – what teachers need to know

Written by: Charlotte Aynsley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Tackling the phenomenon of nude image-sharing among young people is both a safeguarding and an education priority as we respond to revelations about sexual harassment and abuse in schools. Charlotte Aynsley advises

Nude image-sharing – the sharing of sexually explicit photos, messages, or other content – is not an unusual behaviour in secondary schools and is not a new phenomenon.

A Brook and CEOP survey from 2017 (McGeeney & Hanson, 2017) found that 26 per cent of 2,135 young people aged 14 to 24 surveyed had sent a nude image to someone they were interested in; 48 per cent had received one.

Consensual sexual interactions are a healthy part of growing up, but when it comes to explicit digital media, the permanence, ease of sharing and existing laws complicate matters.

Further, the non-consensual sharing of images constitutes a serious and alarmingly widespread issue.

While the Department for Education has introduced statutory guidance on relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education (DfE, 2019), with further guidance and updates on sexting in 2020, the recent Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools (Ofsted, 2021) revealed that the issue remains prevalent. It found that nearly 90 per cent of girls and nearly 50 per cent of boys received unwanted explicit pictures or videos “a lot” or “sometimes.”

Nude image-sharing and potential harms

Although the UK’s age of consent is 16, the Protection of Children Act of 1978 – which predates home computers, let alone smartphones – makes it illegal for anyone to generate, share or possess an indecent image of a person under the age of 18. This applies regardless of the minor’s consent and includes self-generated images.

Nude images are often shared among or by children for various reasons, and these reasons aren’t always harmful or criminally motivated. Looking at the motivation behind the sharing of nude images is essential to tackling the issue, and we can broadly split these into two categories: aggravated and experimental.

  • An aggravated incident: This involves an additional abusive and or a coercive element; for example, when nude images are shared without consent, when someone has been coerced or blackmailed into sending nude images or the nude images were shared to deliberately harm someone.
  • An experimental incident: One where there is no deliberate intent to harm. For example, being in a romantic relationship or sending nude images of yourself for affirmation purposes.

The motivations here are less harmful and there should be a proportionate child-centric response. Although it is important to note that even in this instance, if the existence of explicit images of a person becomes known and shared, the sender may experience damage to their reputation and can become the target of bullying and can suffer low self-esteem.

Aggravated and experimental incidents can require different approaches, but they should always be appropriate, proportionate and child centric.

The nude image-sharing advice from the UK Council for Internet Safety (2020) – an excellent resource – acknowledges that sexual content is often consensually self-generated within a relationship and offers advice on how to respond.

Responding effectively as a teacher

Teachers and school staff have a difficult task when it comes to discussing and managing nude image-sharing. They must ensure they are safeguarding children while also educating them on the potential consequences of nude image-sharing for themselves and the possible long-lasting harmful effects on themselves and their peers.

As the Ofsted review highlights, it is important to create a school environment where young people feel comfortable coming forward if they are experiencing sexual abuse of any kind.

Ofsted says that students “worry about how adults will react, because they think they will not be believed, or that they will be blamed”, so it is worthwhile reassuring students that they can report incidents and that they will be managed appropriately and proportionately.

We know – and the Ofsted review reminds us – that most children do not report to adults, as they are fearful of judgement and the response. As a teacher, you are only likely to become aware of sexting when things go wrong and potentially an image sent privately in a relationship has been shared more widely.

Victim-blaming must be avoided at all costs. Instead, any person sharing an image without consent must be held to account.

A challenging issue

The new RSHE curriculum stipulates that secondary school students must learn about healthy relationships, issues relating to consent, and online risks. Specifically, pupils must be taught:

  • Online risks, including that any material someone provides to another has the potential to be shared online and the difficulty of removing potentially compromising material placed online.
  • What to do and where to get support to report material or manage issues online (see further information for more resources).
  • That sharing and viewing indecent images of children (including those created by children) is a criminal offence which carries severe penalties including jail.

Nude image-sharing is a difficult and complex issue for schools to address, but address it we must – both via effective education including within RSHE and via effective reporting and pastoral support processes in schools.

  • Charlotte Aynsley is safeguarding advisor at Impero, which delivers safeguarding technology to schools. Visit

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019:
  • McGeeney & Hanson: Digital romance: A research project exploring young people’s use of technology in their romantic relationships and love lives, National Crime Agency & Brook, 2017:
  • Ofsted: Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, June 2021:
  • UKCIS: Guidance: Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: Advice for education settings working with children and young people, December 2020:

Further sources of support

Further reading & listening


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