Freedom of information requests by BBC Newcastle found there have been more than 4,000 cases of children taking explicit pictures of themselves and sending them to others since 2013.
It is illegal to possess, take or distribute sexual images of someone who is under 18, even if that person is yourself. Breaking that law can result in under-18s receiving a police caution or being put on the sex offender register.
Police forces that responded to the BBC’s request for information reported that they had spoken to nearly 400 under-12s in England and Wales in the past three years. The data showed that 13- and 14-year-olds were the most likely to be engaging with sexting.
The BBC found that a five-year-old and his parents in County Durham were spoken to by police in 2015 after the boy took an intimate photograph of himself and sent it to another child using an iPad.
DCI Stephen Thubron, of Durham constabulary, said the force had to record incidents in line with national crime recording standards. “However, we deal with incidents proportionately and obviously do not criminalise children,” he said. “Cases of ‘sexting’ are dealt with on a case-by-case basis with the focus always being on safeguarding and keeping children safe.”
A 10-year-old boy received a caution from Northumbria police after he sent a sexual image of himself to an 11-year-old using the video and image sharing app Oovoo.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for child protection, said that while police took a “common sense approach” to the issue of sexting, it was not harmless teenage behaviour.
“There are significant risks involved for children and young people; once an image is sent, control is lost, and it can cause significant distress when it gets into wider hands,” he said.
Helen Westerman, a campaigns manager at the NSPCC, said: “For some children it is a voluntary action, something they want to do for a risk or a dare.
“But for others it is something they have been coerced into in some way. They may have been put under pressure by friends, peers or partners, but once it is out there it is out there. Once the picture has been sent they can’t get it back and the consequences of that can be devastating for the young people involved.”