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Positive pathways for young people who get into trouble online – Sian Meader

What sexual behaviours are young people involved in online?

When is sexual behaviour harmful?

What sexually abusive behaviours do young people display/experience online?

What happens when young people get into trouble with the police?

What support and intervention is needed?

These are all questions we explored over the course of our 90 minute workshop for the NOTA conference, Belfast, September 2019. 

The majority of young people in the UK live an integrated on-and-offline life.  Technology is a significant part of our children’s lives and they are developing their understanding about the world simultaneously on-and-offline.  Inevitably the internet has become a key way for young people to develop their sexual understanding and identity.  Many young people are engaging in sexual behaviours online, from sexually flirtatious chat, sharing nude selfies and accessing pornography, to experiencing or displaying sexually abusive behaviours (Beckett et al, 2019 and Project DeSHAME, 2017). In focus groups held by The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, young people involved acknowledged the reality of online harms, yet considered this to be normal.   Referring to unsolicited contact from older men, one young person commented “I’m used it now”.

Every month young people, parents and professionals contact the Stop It Now! helpline run by The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, seeking advice regarding on-and-offline harmful sexual behaviours.  In 2019 we received 54 calls from under 18s and 293 calls from young people aged between 18 & 21.  In addition, we received 413 call from adults concerned about a young person under 18 and 174 calls about a young person aged between 18 & 21.  Stop It Now! Scotland have piloted an action research project named The ROSA Project (Reducing Online Sexual Abuse).  In the first 18 months, ROSA worked with 1508 young people in whole school awareness delivery, 1191 pupils have received PSE lessons and 39 pupils have been worked with on a one-to-one basis. 

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation routinely deliver ‘Inform Young People’, a short psycho-educational programme for young people who have got into trouble for sexual behaviour, online.  Usually participant’s behaviour has involved non-consensual sharing of intimate images; exploitation, coercion and threats; or the downloading/sharing of child sexual abuse images.    The ‘Inform Young People’ programme aims to:

  • Provide information, advice and support to the young person and their parents or carers
  • Alleviate the young person’s (and parents’/carers’) distress and anxiety arising from their concerning sexual behaviour coming to light
  • Give practical advice on strategies to prevent a re-occurrence or escalation of the concerning sexual behaviour – including aids for responsible use of technology
  • Give sound information about the law in this context, especially as it applies to young people
  • Facilitate more open communication between the young person and their parents or carers
  • Promote hope for the future

Throughout our interaction with young people and their families, we learnt that the criminal justice response to harmful sexual behaviours online can vary significantly.  For clarity, we contacted all police forces across England and Wales to find out the outcomes for under 18s who were reported for specific offences related to illegal images over a 2 year period ending 30th July 2018. We found:

  • The use of outcome ‘21’ ranged between 0 – 94% across police areas. This outcome code allows the police to record a crime as having happened but for no formal criminal justice action to be taken as it is not considered to be in the public interest to do so.
  • The use of Youth Cautions ranged between 0 – 33% across police areas.
  • Decisions to take no further action ranged between 0 – 84% across police areas.
  • Only 5 in 100 young people received an out of court disposal across all police areas. i.e. restorative intervention.
  • Most areas were unable to comment on average investigation length, but of the 11 areas which did, it ranged between 1.9 and 11.8 months, with an average of 4.7 months.

It is clear that young people and families need support and advice, regardless of the criminal justice response they experience.  And more importantly, young people need advice and knowledge to prevent harmful sexual behaviour occurring online at all.

To better understand the experience of young people online and what resources are needed to help young people who are worried about their online behaviour before they get into trouble, we undertook a series of focus groups with young people and facilitated online surveys with young people, parents and professionals.  Keep your eyes peeled for a report on our findings by spring 2021, which will shape the development of a unique open access resource specifically for young people worried about their online behaviours.

In the meantime, let me leave you with how we can all help prevent harmful sexual behaviours amongst young people:

  • Keep open lines of communication with the young people in your lives
  • Stay informed about young people’s experience of the online world by being curious, asking questions and exploring the online spaces young people inhabit
  • Help young people review their privacy settings
  • Help young people understand what the law says about sexual behaviour online
  • Respond proportionately when young people get into trouble
  • Put clear boundaries around internet use, for example setting clear expectation about time spent online, when to switch off and where to keep devices at night time
  • Encourage positive use of the internet
  • Encourage offline interests
  • Guide young people on how to show etiquette online, providing clarity on what is acceptable

Sian Meader, Clinical Manager for Young People Services

The Lucy Faithfull Foundation



Beckett et.al, (2019) ‘Learning about online sexual harm’, IICSA and University of Bedfordshire, November 2019.

Project deSHAME (2017) ‘Young people’s experiences of online sexual harassment’, December 2017