Children as young as 14 are being arrested for ‘youth sexting’ despite police guidance against taking action that can leave them with a criminal record.

Research in a new report commissioned by North Yorkshire-based charity the Marie Collins Foundation shows that young people are subject to a ‘postcode lottery’ over whether or not they are criminalised for sharing indecent images of themselves.

Under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, the generation or distribution of indecent images of children is illegal.

However, the legislation that sought to protect child victims did not forsee that, today, teenagers would routinely self-produce and distribute their own sexual images on mobile devices, known as sexting.

The 1978 legislation has been used to charge increasing numbers of teenagers over the years. Ministry of Justice data on juveniles entering the criminal justice system as a result of charges under the Protection of Children Act doubled between 2007 and 2016.

Being arrested and charged can affect a child’s future career since a recorded sex offence can remain on their record.

In response, in December 2016 the College of Policing issued guidance, known as Outcome 21, to address the increasing number of children being arrested for self-generated sexual imagery.

It meant that a crime could be recorded as “not in the public interest” and would not result in the young person having a criminal record.

The new research undertaken by University of Suffolk and based on Freedom of Information requests shows, however, that use of the guidance is inconsistent and, at times, disproportionate across the UK.

Data obtained by Professor Emma Bond and Professor Andy Phippen reveals that young people, some aged under 14, are still being arrested and their activity recorded as crime.

Marie Collins Foundation, which is dedicated to the recovery of young victims of online sexual abuse, commissioned the research as a result of growing concern regarding the continued criminalisation of children.

CEO Tink Palmer MBE said: “The criminalisation of children is an issue that has been of concern to me for some time. This research is an initial exploration of how police forces are deploying the Outcome 21 guidance, and whether intention has transferred into practice.”

Based on data supplied by 32 police forces, the report reveals the number of arrests related to the taking, making or distribution of an indecent image of a child by ‘suspects’ aged under 18 and under 14, and the comparable number of Outcome 21 recordings made.

It shows that Outcome 21 is being applied by most of the forces that responded, sometimes far exceeding the number of arrests.

However, it also confirms that children under 14 are still being arrested.

For example, Staffordshire Police used Outcome 21 for under 18s on 365 occasions compared with just five arrests, Greater Manchester applied it 414 times and made just six arrests and Derbyshire arrested three under-18s and utilised Outcome 21 300 times.

Mrs Palmer said she remained concerned about the apparent inconsistency of the application of Outcome 21.

“I am pleased that a number of progressive police forces are using Outcome 21 in a way to still record crime without the risk of criminalisation for young people in cases where it is appropriate. Of course, where arrest is entirely valid then police still have this option.

“However, in some areas children are still being arrested and subject to the full law enforcement process and a criminal record instead of Outcome 21 being applied. There is a risk that children engaging in sexting are falling victim to a postcode lottery, where the likelihood of their being arrested for this sort of crime depends upon where they live.

“I would like to see the guidance being applied every time it is appropriate to do so and applied in the same way by all police forces across the country, whilst we also continue to educate children about the risks of engaging in this kind of activity.”

In 2009, Prof Phippen published a report showing that 40 per cent of young people aged 14-16 said they knew peers who engaged in sexting.

Pointing to tension between protecting victims and addressing illegality, he added: “The 1978 legislation was introduced and debated before the day when the impact of the internet on society, let alone someone self-generating an indecent image of themselves from their bedroom and have it passed around many recipients with the touch of a button, could ever have been envisioned.

“While Outcome 21 is a progressive step forward we need to be mindful that it can still come up on a criminal record check at the discretion of a Chief Constable.”