CHILDREN across Cheshire are sharing sexual photographs of themselves or other youngsters more than ever.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal there were at least 97 individuals under 18 who were dealt with by police for taking or possessing indecent images of children in 2018.

This compares to 64 in 2017 and just 15 in 2016.

It comes as national statistics show that ‘sexting’ is becoming increasingly popular among young people with more than double the number of cases since 2014/15.

The vast majority of images are shared on phones, tablets and computers by youngsters who have no idea they are breaking the law.

In 2016 the Home Office recognised this and introduced a measure called ‘Outcome 21’ which allows police to record the sexual offence without criminalising children.

Of the 176 people under 18 who committed offences in the county over the past three years, just six were charged and two were handed cautions.

The rest – a total of 168 – were dealt with through Outcome 21, according to the figures released by Cheshire Constabulary.

The Standard asked both the police and Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) what was being done to combat the growing problem and educate children.

Chief superintendent Nigel Wenham, of Cheshire Police, said: “The figures reveal that the number of reports of sexting incidents involving children and young people in Cheshire have increased over the past three years.

“This is in line with more children and young people using mobile phones and other electronic devices in their daily lives.

“Prevention is key and educating young people about the risks they face is an important part of what we do.”

Cheshire Police has a team of dedicated school liaison officers who work closely alongside schools to educate children about the dangers of sexting, he said.

“We know that young people will always take risks as that is a part of growing up, but it is important that we all work together to ensure they are fully informed about the issue and make every effort to keep themselves safe online,” Chief superintendent Wenham added.

“Many young people do not realise that producing or sharing sexual imagery amongst themselves is actually against the law and many do not stop and think of the embarrassment and distress that can be caused once an image is shared.”

He said the police were not seeking to criminalise children and young people and used Outcome 21 when appropriate.

However, he stressed this can only be used “if proportionate” and where there is no evidence of exploitation or malicious intent.

He continued: “The priority of focus for the police and wider criminal justice system is to ensure that children and young people are safeguarded; and to bring to justice those who are abusing children through their criminal activity.

“Parents and carers also have an important role to play and they are encouraged to talk to children so that they are fully informed and understand the risks.”

A spokesman for the council also said it was important not to criminalise young people unnecessarily.

She said: “We are always concerned to hear about indecent images being shared and the effect this can have on those we care for.

“Increasing use of mobile technology amongst young people is giving them the means to unwittingly share images that they previously would not have had the resources to do.

“The majority of incidents are not malicious and therefore it’s appropriate that police are not criminalising young people.”

The spokesman said the authority works closely with the police on a number of initiatives to tackle the issue:

• Youth workers in the Early Help and Prevention Service offer young people support and advice on issues affecting them – including sexting - on a weekly basis. The youth workers have completed specific training and use a game called ‘#isitok?’ They hold one-to-one sessions if a specific issue is identified with an individual.

• The Youth Team offers training called ‘Can We Talk Healthy Relationships’ to schools and colleges in the borough. The council says it is looking to expand this to include the dangers of indecent images and sexting.

• The Cheshire West Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) offers Child Exploitation Online Prevention training and Sexually Harmful Behaviour in Young People training to the multi-agency workforce. This aims to educate adults about how they can safeguard young people and keep up-to-date with technology and how young people use it.

• The LSCB is said to be working with Young People to develop an E-Safety Strategy that will educate young people and professionals about the risks associated with misuse of technology. The Safeguarding Children in Education Team deliver basic awareness training to all schools in Cheshire West and Healthy Relationship & E-Safety is a feature of the course.

• Cheshire Constabulary Safer Schools Partnership go into schools to educate and empower young people to make good choices and point out the laws and consequences of breaking them. They deliver a peer mentor scheme whereby young people become ambassadors for their peers and educate one another on safe use of technology and healthy relationships. Every school incorporates E-Safety into their curriculum (PHSE) which is a requirement in the Keeping Children Safe in Education Guidance.