Sexting and Websex by UK children and young people
Submitting InstitutionPlymouth University
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Education: Specialist Studies In Education
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
This case study demonstrates the impact generated through research
studies at Plymouth University into `sexting', the self-generation and
distribution of explicit images, by children and young people. The
findings have informed briefing material for Ofsted inspectors, been used
to develop material for schools, and led to schools developing new
curriculum based support and peer mentoring. The research has also
extended the understanding of the emerging issues and helped inform
national debate and public discourse.
This case study describes research studies into `sexting' undertaken by
Prof. Andy Phippen at Plymouth University (Lecturer from 2001-2006, Senior
Lecturer 2006-2010, Prof 2011- to present). The research emerged from
concerns regarding the practice of sexting — the sharing of explicit
images electronically — and sought to to better understand the ways young
people from 11 to 18 use mobile and Internet technology to share files
among friends. Its technical basis was developed in association with staff
in the School of Computing and Mathematics (UoAs 10 and 11).
Sexting is an issue that affects the lives of children and young people.
It can do long term reputational damage and, in more serious cases,
extreme bullying and suicide have resulted. In this first large study into
the sexting phenomena in the UK, Phippen explored the prevalence of the
practice of "sexting", the self generation and distribution of explicit
images by children and young people in the UK. The study was commissioned
in 2009 by the South West Grid for Learning, a leading online safety
charity in the UK (now part of the UK Safer Internet Centre).
Data were collected through an online survey administered in schools
across the South West. The survey aimed to inform understanding about
image and video sharing among young people and contribute to improving
measures for protecting individuals from the harm that can occur. The
survey was developed with support from Barnardos and engaged parents,
teachers, and children. The data collection was carried out between
September and November 2009. A total sample of 1,150 children completed
the survey across 30 schools.
The research found that young people are very confident in the use of
digital technology to take and distribute images/videos with 79% of
respondents saying they used such digital technologies for these purposes.
The research into young people's attitudes also found that 40% did not see
anything wrong with viewing a topless image, and 15% did not take issue
with naked images. The research found that sexting is prevalent among
young people, with around 40% saying they knew friends who carried out
such practice and over a quarter (27%) reporting that sexting happens
regularly or all the time. Almost a third of respondents (30%) knew people
who had been adversely affected by sexting, while only 24% said they would
turn to a teacher for help if they were affected by issues related to
The second study in the programme of research (commissioned again by the
South West Grid for Learning 2012) was a qualitative study involving 12
focus groups with year 9 pupils (aged 13--14) pupils in 6 different
schools across 3 counties. In addition three exploratory focus groups were
held with year 6 (aged 10--11) in two different schools. In total the
study undertook research with 150 young people. This research, supported
by the UK Safer Internet Centre and the NSPCC, revealed new concerns and
trends in sexting amongst teenagers. The study concluded that sexting is
considered almost routine for many 13-14 year olds and that while young
people think that issues around sexualised online content (both
pornography and self-generated content) should be discussed in school they
are unwilling to turn to adults for help due to fear of being judged. It
also found that younger children (10-11 years olds) are still largely safe
from exposure to sexualised content.
Following the sexting research, Prof Phippen was approached by BBC
Current Affairs to conduct some further research into the use of
technology in relationships in a slightly older demographic group (16-24).
This research explored attitudes to technology in relationships by this
demographic group and also explored how mainstream this was.
References to the research
"Should We Do It Just Because We Can? Methodological and Ethical
Implications for Information Revelation in Online Social Networks",
A.Phippen, R. Davey and S. Furnell. Methodological Innovations Online
Vol 4 No.3., December 2009. Methodological Innovations Online is an
international open access, peer reviewed social research journal.
Preventative actions for enhancing online protection and privacy,
Furnell, S., Phippen, A., Von Solms, R. International Journal for
Information Technologies and Systems Approach. Vol. 4 No. 2. June
2011. The journal is a refereed, international journal on applied and
theoretical research, aimed at providing coverage by both scholars and
practitioners in the field of information systems.
S. Atkinson, S. Furnell, A. Phippen, "Securing the Next Generation:
Enhancing e-safety Awareness Among Young People", Computer Fraud and
Security, Issue 7: 13-19, (2009). International, peer-reviewed
journal providing research to effectively manage and control computer and
Phippen, A. (2012) Sharing Personal Images and Videos Among Young People.
Commissioned report for South West Grid for Learning. This report went
through a rigorous quality review process with experts in this area
including the Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, Head of Education
at Child Exploitation and Online Protection (part of UK Law Enforcement),
eSafety lead for Plymouth City Council and Head of Child Protection at
Phippen, Andy (2012) Sexting: an exploration of practices, attitudes and
influences. London: NSPCC and UK Safer Internet Centre. This report went
through a detailed review process with experts prior to publication
including Director of UK Safer Internet Centre, Head of strategy and child
protection at the NSPCC, Chief Executive of Childnet International, Chief
Executive of the Marie Collins Foundation and Head of Social Care at South
Details of the impact
The research has extended the understanding of the emerging issues and
helped inform national debate and public discourse. The research formed
part of the evidence within the cross-party Parliamentary Inquiry into the
current state of online child protection. Eight key recommendations to
enhance child safety on line were produced as part of this Enquiry
including better support for internet safety education and initiatives.
Following on from this, the Prime Minister appointed Claire Perry MP as
his special advisor on preventing sexualisation and commercialisation of
childhood. One of the areas will be improving education for parents and
children about safety and technology. Prof. Phippen has advised Claire
Perry MP on the research findings as part of her role.
All of the research studies have received wide interest from the media
and have impacted upon debate and understanding outside of academia.
Coverage in the UK has been in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph
and Independent while international coverage has also been
extensive. The research on behalf of BBC Current Affairs resulted in the
documentary "Websex: Where's the Harm", which was broadcast on BBC3 in
The research has impacted on schools, particularly those that have taken
part in the research studies or subsequently contacted Prof. Phippen for
advice and support. The research has provided a foundation for
practitioners to develop lessons and teaching resources around sexting
that aim to reduce the incidence of risky behaviours. The research
findings have been used by the Child Online Exploitation Unit to develop a
film called `Exposed' along with teaching resources for use in schools.
These are freely available on their website and are suitable for young
people, schools and parents to use.
Several schools have reviewed their approach to technology and safety,
some have changed their PSHE curriculum while others have introduced new
processes of support including a peer mentoring programme. As the Head at
Worle Community School, Somerset stated "Our work with Andy last year
allowed us to better understand the issues our pupils face around
sexting and also early exposure to sexualised content. We are in the
process of developing a peer mentoring programme so that trained older
pupils will be able to support younger pupils." Following on from
this the Headteacher of Plymouth High School for Girls outlined the main
impact being the development of knowledge and the inclusion of that within
the PSHE curriculum "Working with Andy has helped better understand the
motivations for sexting and also the wider issues around access to
inappropriate content. By working with a member of staff who delivers
this aspect of our PSHE programme, Andy has provided professional
development for her so that she is better able to address the issues in
school. As a result of this we are looking at more effectively
integrating these into the PSHE curriculum"
The research has impacted upon national policy via Ofsted Inspector
briefings. The UK Safer Internet Centre, an organisation co-funded by the
European Commission and bringing together a partnership of three leading
organisations, Childnet International, the South West Grid for Learning
and the Internet Watch Foundation, has used the research in their recent
work with OFSTED namely in the provision of briefings for school
inspectors. In the briefing for Ofsted Inspectors (Inspecting e-safety
2013), the research from Phippen is referenced and of the five sample
questions for school leadership, three come from Phippen's research.
As stated by the Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre "the
research Professor Phippen does with us provides a strong evidence base
to inform our strategy, policy and practice around online safety
nationally and increasingly internationally. For example the annual
reports published describing UK and international school online safety
practice discloses staff training is consistently the weakest aspect of
a schools online safety provision directly informed ours (and others)
focus for supporting schools. Further examples relate to our recent work
with OFSTED - the new evaluation framework specifically refer to online
safety and Andy's research was used to evidence issues in the associated
briefing notes we provide for inspectors."
Sources to corroborate the impact
Full statement from the Director of UK Safer Internet Centre, an
organisation co-funded by the European Commission and bringing together a
partnership of three leading organisations, Childnet International, the
South West Grid for Learning and the Internet Watch Foundation.
Full statement from Head Teacher, Worle Community School, Somerset on the
impact on the school and the introduction of a new peer mentoring
Inspecting e-safety: briefing for Section 5 inspection, Ofsted January
2013. Phippen referenced and questions for leaders based on research.
A video and resources produced by the Child Online Protection and
Exploitation Unit that used the research to develop the script and
UK Council for Child Internet Safety research highlight:
Research quoted in Parliament by Ann Coffey MP:
Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Online Safety:
Coverage on BBC Radio 1's Sexnight:
Small selection of various press pieces: