Hundreds of children as young as six have been deemed suspects in “sexting” offences, Scotland Yard has revealed.
The force warned of the risks of sharing sexual photos and videos of and by under-18s, with reports to police on the rise.
A total of 353 children aged between six and 13 were considered suspects between January 1 2017 and August 19 2019, figures released by the Metropolitan Police show.
There were 92 in 2017, 151 in 2018 and 110 in the first six months of 2019.
The Met said youngsters are vulnerable to intimate images of them being distributed without their consent, while many are unaware they are breaking the law by taking, sharing or possessing explicit pictures.
Detective Superintendent Zena Marshall said: “We know that many young people do not realise that creating or sharing explicit images of an under-18 is against the law, even if the person/s doing it are children themselves, and as police we have a duty to record allegations concerning sexting when they are reported to us.
“Someone could be classed as a victim, witness or suspect, depending on the circumstances.”
Eleanor, 18, who has used a pseudonym to protect her identity, said she was left feeling “embarrassed” and “awful about myself” after finding out private pictures she sent to her boyfriend had ended up in the hands of strangers.
She was just 14 when she sent him so-called “nudes” on Snapchat – an app on which images typically disappear after a few seconds – while she was away on holiday.
But, unknown to her, the boy had downloaded an app allowing him to save the images without the sender realising, and he shared them six months after they had broken up.
“All of a sudden, none of my friends would talk to me and boys that he (her ex) was friends with were calling me a slag and I was actually physically hurt in school. I was pushed around, had my hair pulled,” she said.
Eleanor moved schools but weeks later was confronted with the same images.
“I was getting messages multiple times a day, people sending me the images of myself, calling me horrible, horrible names, insulting the way I look,” she said.
Her boyfriend and two others who were arrested were eventually released with no further action.
Scotland Yard said the force does not look to prosecute children and can deal with offences in other ways, such as a youth caution, a recommendation for a talk with a schools officer, or a referral to social services.
Since 2016, officers can also record an offence as an Outcome 21, when a prosecution is not deemed in the public interest and there are no aggravating factors.
The record expires after 10 years but can be disclosed during vetting checks for working with children.
DS Marshall said: “We do not want to criminalise young people unnecessarily – we want to educate them so that they can be better informed about the legal position and mindful about the potential pitfalls of an activity many of them might regard as nothing out of the ordinary.”