The report of the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill published last month includes recommendations that 'cyberflashing' be made illegal, and that pornography sites should have a legal duty to ensure children do not access the site. These serve as a reminder of the potential harm posed by sexual content online.
Schools play a role in protecting children when it comes to online harm. Educators will be well aware of the rise of 'sexting', in particular, 'youth-produced sexual imagery' (YPSI). YPSI is sexting relating to the activity of children and young people, whether that is a child creating and sharing sexual imagery of themselves, or another person, or a child in possession of sexual imagery created by other children.
The Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, published in June 2021, explicitly identified YPSI as an issue stating, "It is a concern that this review has identified that many instances of sexual harassment, including the pressure to share nudes and the sharing of youth-produced sexual imagery without consent, are going unrecognised or unchallenged by school staff" and relaying student feedback that instances of receiving unsolicited explicit sexual material and being pressured to send nude pictures "are much more prevalent than adults realise".
This article explores the steps schools can take to protect their students and address the issue of YPSI.
The starting point for education settings is that normal safeguarding principles apply, as underpinned and detailed in the government guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education - September 2021 (KCSIE). The process by which children and young people make disclosures in education settings should be closely followed, as with any other safeguarding issue. KCSIE emphasises online safety, with schools and colleges under a positive obligation to ensure that online safety forms part of both staff's safeguarding training and that children are taught explicitly about online safety as part of their safeguarding learning. Education settings should also assume, and act, as though YPSI is an issue, even if disclosures are not being made, as recommended by the Ofsted review.
However, educators may naturally be cautious about YPSI due to the potential criminal implications of the images. It is an offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to possess, distribute, show and make indecent images of children under the age of 18.
Staff (and parents) must not intentionally view the images, unless there is a good and clear reason to do so. The government guidance states that the Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL), must be satisfied that viewing the images:
- is the only way to make a decision about whether to involve other agencies because it is not possible to establish the facts from any child or young person involved;
- is necessary to report it to a website, app or suitable reporting agency (such as the IWF) to have it taken down, or to support the child or young person or parent or carer in making a report;
- is unavoidable because a child or young person has presented it directly to a staff member or nudes or semi-nudes have been found on an education setting’s device or network.
Steps for schools to take
Schools should therefore ensure their educators feel equipped to deal with the challenges that YPSI presents. Staff must be adequately trained and schools should adopt a preventative and proactive whole-school approach to YPSI. The government guidance is comprehensive and makes it clear that online safety must be embedded into the curriculum, including an open dialogue with students (in both the appropriate setting, and at the appropriate age). Staff should be given the opportunity to read the government guidance in full and reflect on how it applies. We also recommend that school leadership, including those responsible for safeguarding, create specific safeguarding training for staff on online safety and YPSI.
As with all issues that concern children and young people, education settings should be aiming for a partnership between the child, parent, and school, with open lines of communications. Parents and guardians should therefore be made aware of the school's approach to discussing online safety, including YPSI. Schools and colleges may wish to direct parents to the recently published guidance from the Children's Commissioner, which provides comprehensive advice for parents to discuss this challenging topic with their children.
In an increasingly digital world, where children and young people grow up online, it is vital that schools adopt a proactive and preventative whole-school approach to YPSI and online safety generally.