Hundreds of South Yorkshire children have been investigated by police for sending sexual imagery online and on their phones.
Figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed how South Yorkshire Police have investigated 394 'sexting' cases since 2013. Facebook and Snapchat were the most common social media platforms for sharing the images, while Skype, Instagram and Twitter were also used.
The county figures formed part of a national picture in which nearly 3,500 investigations into sexting by under-18s were opened by 25 police forces over the past four years. A report by a national newspaper indicated South Yorkshire was among the top five highest in which Norfolk Police came top with 1097 cases.
This reportedly included children as young as seven who were the subject of police action and there are now concerns this represents evidence that a sexting epidemic is mounting among British youth.
The shocking statistics were unveiled by John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, who said: “These shocking figures show the vital importance of sex and relationships education. The dangers of sexting need to be told to young people.”
Melanie Palin, deputy chief inspector for South Yorkshire Police, said: "As soon as a picture is sent, control of what happens next is lost. Images can all too easily be shared and widely distributed, and this can have life changing impacts on children; it can lead to bullying, exploitation and embarrassment. Before sending images, children and young people should think about what could happen afterwards, no matter how trustworthy they believe the recipient to be. Today’s best friend can be tomorrow’s worst enemy."
She added: “We would encourage parents to talk to their children about the use of the internet and mobile phones; how to use them safely and the possible dangers surrounding them.
“Work is ongoing through dedicated schools officers to deliver advice to pupils on the dangers of sexting and how to ensure they stay safe when using the internet and their phones.”
The forces involved said that the increase in cases showed that recording and reporting was improving, as more victims felt able to make a complaint. In eight cases, prosecution was prevented because the offender was under ten, the age of criminal responsibility.
Several forces said that they were heavily engaged in explaining to children that once images were sent “you lose control of what happens next” and that sexting could have “life-changing impacts."
Of all the national cases for which an outcome was recorded, 49 led to cautions, 51 to charges and 179 to 'community resolutions' in which the offender apologised or paid compensation. In most cases no action was taken.
There have been calls to upgrade the sex education curriculum in English schools to reflect the use of new technology.
South Yorkshire's police and crime commissioner Dr Alan Billings believes this would protect young people from the evils lurking online.
Earlier this year he said: "In today’s highly sexualised world, where every child has easy access to the internet, education and guidance is urgently needed."
An NSPCC spokesperson said: "Last year, Childline held 1,392 counselling sessions with children worried about sexting or sharing sexually explicit images, with more than half of these aged between 12 and 15-years-old.
"It is important children are made aware of the consequences – not only the legal ones, but also the fact that when something is shared it’s very difficult to control. You don’t know who is going to see it once it’s sent, and it’s very difficult to get the image taken down."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “We need to ensure that all children and young people have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education that relates to the modern world.
“That is why we plan to update statutory guidance for relationships and sex education, which was introduced nearly 20 years ago. We will now begin engagement and gather expert opinions to ensure these subjects really have a positive impact.”