Police response to online sexual images of young people – the role of context and discretion

Thie project will look at the main challenges and opportunities of policing online sexual images of young people.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Alishya Dhir
Police region
North East
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

This research seeks to identify the main opportunities and challenges of policing (or responding to) online sexual images of young people, in particular, the roles which are played by ‘context’ and ‘discretion’. In this instance, online sexual images of young people accounts for indecent images of children, sexting and image based sexual abuse. 

The researcher is interested in how police navigate this complex terrain, considering the rage of cases they encounter and how decision-making needs to be adjusted depending on suitability. Findings produced from this research will be used to provide examples of good policing practice, which can in turn be used to improve both policy and bad practice – aiding those in the field and survivors of such crimes themselves.

A mixed methods approach will be taken incorporating targeted observation and interviews to answer the following three research questions.

  1. What are the main challenges and opportunities of policing online sexual images of young people?

  2. What role does discretion play in the policing of online sexual images of young people?

  3. What role does context play in the policing of online sexual images of young people?


  • Identifying different contexts that are encountered, through this, understanding different crimes/incidents which can be considered as ‘online sexual images of young people’ and how these can be categorised beyond colloquial terms such as ‘sexting’ which provide little information about the level of harm or consent. More targeted information about potential crimes/incidents.

  • Understand the front line challenges and opportunities that officers encounter i.e. educating a young person about the law, picking up on harmful sexual behaviour, contemplating the solution to the incident due to the age of the perpetrator/victim.

  • Demonstrate the use of discretion, its usefulness in situations where solutions are not clear. Good examples of the use of discretion, which can build upon good practice.

Research methodology

A mixed method approach will be adopted, utilising both interviews and observations. Semi-structured interviews will be carried out with officers who have worked/are working on cases related to online sexual images of teenagers, this could include ‘sexting’, CSE and ‘revenge porn’ for example.

Through the interviews, the intention is to gather feedback, from the officers’ perspective, of the decision making utilised during these cases, and the role that context plays in respect to the latter.  The belief is that depending on the circumstances, officers will be required to alter their decision making, bringing the case to a close in a way they deem appropriate.

Interviews are the most suitable form of data collection as it enables individuals involved to have their voices heard, so that any findings produced reflect the opportunities and challenges faced by those working in this field.

Targeted observations will be carried out with those working on relevant cases. This method allows for information to be gathered about the context of cases encountered, specifically, the variation, and how policing methods are re-worked/adapted, using discretion, depending on the circumstances of a case, being situated in the environment allows the researcher to witness officer’s organic reactions to contextual disparities and in turn how they utilise discretion.

The aim is to interview 10 officers from 3 different police forces and carry out 3 targeted observations also with 3 forces. With a larger sample base the findings will have a stronger foundation and therefore enable further exploration of various emerging themes.

Data produced from the interviews will be examined using both thematic and narrative analysis. By adopting the narrative approach alongside thematic, it prevents perspectives and stories disclosed by police staff from being disregarded or diluted (Bryman, 2016).

The researcher believes it is important when considering discretion and context, that there is an understanding of how individual staff feel, since the use of discretion and comprehension of context can vary from person to person.

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