Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people: Expert Group report

This report sets out proposals from the Expert Group on Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People to improve prevention and early intervention in response to harmful sexual behaviour involving children and young people.

Chapter 5: Evidence of Frequency of Harmful Sexual Behaviours; Further Detail of the Background to Some Cases

The Expert Group examined what is currently understood to be the number of children and young people exposed to and / or exhibiting HSB in Scotland.

The UK has seen a steady increase in the number of young people coming to the attention of professionals because of their sexual behaviours.

A study carried out in England in 2011 with 2,275 young people found that two-thirds of the sample who were reporting contact HSB[87] identified the abuse as carried out by other children and young people.[88]

A further study estimated that at least one-third of all sexual offences against children in the UK are committed by other children, with early adolescence and the onset of puberty representing a peak time for sexual offending behaviour.[89]

A UK-wide survey of Head Teachers and Safeguarding Leads in schools highlighted the issues faced in addressing the problems caused by peer on peer online abuse, not limited to, but including HSB[90],[91]. Of the Scottish respondents, 95% suggested there had been an incident of online peer on peer abuse within their educational institution, and 80% recognised an increase in online peer on peer abuse incidents over the previous 3 years.

Childline provided the Expert Group with information on the numbers of counselling sessions it had provided to children calling about HSB towards them by another child or young person. During 2017-18, Childline received 3878 calls about this, compared with 2750 calls during 2013-14. Calls were received from children aged 11 and under, as well as older children and young people.[92]

There are several challenges caused by the fact that so many differing statutory authorities, third sector organisations and professions are involved in this area of work. Differing descriptions and definitions, core purposes, data gathering requirements and practices across so many organisations make it impossible to be completely accurate about the numbers of occurrences of HSB and the number of children and young people involved.

It is also generally accepted that there is under-reporting to the authorities of all sexual crimes, and that children and young people are often uncertain as to whether what has happened to them is a crime.[93]

This explains why figures are usually lower when data around police referrals, charges, convictions etc., are considered, and usually higher when self-reporting by children and young people in surveys by academic studies and charities is considered.

The suggestion that around one third of all instances of HSB towards children and young people in the UK is committed by other children and young people, and which is widely accepted by expert practitioners and academics, has been obtained by averaging the various figures that are available. That averaging also confirms that HSB is primarily perpetrated by boys, most often against girls.

There is little prevalence data available outwith the UK, although evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of HSB is perpetrated by other children and young people.[94]

In Scotland some data on numbers and nature of behaviours is available from Police Scotland, SCRA and COPFS, but even here differences in what is collected by each partner for core work purposes mean there are gaps so far as sociological research methods are concerned. The numbers of instances of HSB which occur will be higher than the number reported to the police, and certainly higher than those reported to COPFS and/or SCRA.[95]

The following section relates to the classification of sexual crimes and offences used in national statistics in Scotland.[96] Police Scotland uses four categories to record sexual crime, which are then presented in the National Statistics on recorded crime.

Two of these categories are 'rape and attempted rape' and 'sexual assault'. These are often referred to as 'contact sexual offences' because they require physical interaction between the accused and the complainer.[97]

The largest category by volume is 'Other sexual crimes' which covers a range of crime types, including communicating indecently, cause to view sexual activity or images, indecent photos of children, sexual activity with older children, sexual exposure, public indecency, voyeurism, disclosure of intimate images and other sexual crimes.

As noted above, 'Other sexual crimes' is now the largest category of sexual crime reported to the police. Its growth has been driven in part by those types of crime which are cyber-enabled, chiefly 'communicating indecently', and 'causing to view sexual activity or images'[98],[99]. Scottish Government statisticians found that cyber-enabled other sexual crime predominantly involves children and young people; the median age of perpetrators was 18 years in 2016-17, while the median age of victims was 14.

Approximately one quarter (24%) of these two forms of cyber-enabled crimes were committed by individuals younger than 16 years old against victims who were also under 16. A further 28% of these crimes were committed by individuals aged between 16 and 19 against victims under the age of 16.

Further Detail Obtained from Samples of COPFS and SCRA Data

To better understand the factors involved in emergence of HSB, a greater depth of information is required than numbers and types of incidences.

The Expert Group commissioned a Data and Intelligence sub group to undertake a detailed look at anonymised information about the circumstances in each of a sample of cases provided by COPFS and SCRA. Information gathered through this work supplements the previous findings in Recorded Crime in Scotland: Other Sexual Crimes, 2013-14 and 2016-17.[100]

A random sample of 96 cases was drawn from the 260 cases reported to COPFS by the police over a 2 year period.[101] Information was drawn from cases of the total of 216 children who were referred to SCRA in 2016-17 for allegedly committing at least one sexual offence.

Whilst appreciating the richness of the data available, the sub group was unable to consider data on relationships between the child or young person referred for HSB and the child or young person they had been involved with, or previous interventions before being reported to COPFS, due to time constraints. However, the sub group agreed that such exercises would provide further understanding of the complexity and full nature of what statutory authorities face in these most sensitive of cases; and should allow more informed understanding of the timing and nature of the most effective interventions that could be pursued.


Accused Children and Young People

The 96 COPFS cases involve charges against 103 young people, with an age range of 12-17 years (median age of 16 years) at the time of the earliest of the alleged offences. All except two of the accused were male.


The sex and age of each complainer[102] was recorded in 65 of the 96 cases. There were 87 complainers in these 65 cases.

78 complainers were female (90%) and 9 male (10%).

The following chart shows the ages of the young people accused of sexual offences reported to COPFS[103], and the ages of the complainers. As can be seen from the chart, the accused were typically older than the complainers.

Accused and Complainers by Age

Seventy-three of the female complainers were aged between 5 and 17 at the time of the offence(s), with a median age of 14 years. Five of the female complainers were adults aged between 18 and 22.

Seven of the male complainers were aged between 11 and 15 at the time of the offence(s), with a median age of 12 years. Two of the male complainers were adults (aged 22 and 34).

Of the 96 cases, 90 involved a single accused. Six cases involved more than one accused.

Cases by category of sexual offence

The sample of 96 cases included:

  • 45 cases of young people charged with rape, attempted rape and/or sexual assault.
  • 45 cases of young people charged with 'other sexual crimes', the majority involving communicating indecently with a child, causing a child to look at a sexual image, and taking, making, possessing or distributing indecent photos of a child.
  • 6 cases of young people charged with both categories of offences.

Prior social work or legal system involvement with the accused

In cases involving rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, a majority of the accused (58%) were already known to either social work, police, or both.

However in cases of 'Other sexual crimes', more than two thirds of accused had not previously come to the attention of either social work or the police.

All six of the accused in cases involving both categories of offences were already known to social work and/or police. Two were care-experienced, two had other cases pending, one had social work involvement due to his escalating sexualised behaviour. Three had noted vulnerabilities including learning difficulties, ADHD and having experienced neglect or abuse in childhood.

Information about any relationship between accused and complainer(s) and general observations about the offences.[104]

In only three of 85 cases where there was information available about whether the accused and complainer knew each other were the accused and complainers unknown to each other prior to the offence.

Rape, Attempted Rape and Sexual Assault

Most of these contact cases occurred within the context of an intimate partner relationship between accused and complainer(s). These commonly involved a consensual sexual relationship which became controlling and abusive.

Cases where the accused and complainer were friends was the second largest group of contact offences. Some of these were online friendships with the offence occurring when they met up.

In the remaining cases, both parties were acquainted with each other, but were not friends. Most commonly, they would know each other by being at the same school, living in the same neighbourhood, working together, or being on the fringes of each other's friendship groups. The context for cases involving friends and acquaintances were often similar and commonly involved drinking by teenagers in parks or at house parties.

A common feature mentioned was of boys persistently requesting or demanding sex from girls and ignoring their stated refusal. This included ignoring requests to stop when girls were experiencing pain. In a number of cases the complainers had sustained physical injuries during rapes. A number of cases involved complainers being raped or sexually assaulted in circumstances where they were unable to consent, i.e. whilst asleep or intoxicated/under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Some of the complainers were described as vulnerable based on the fact more than half were already known to social work and/or police either for care or offence reasons as were 58% of the accused.

Intra-familial sexual abuse occurred in three cases.

Other Sexual Crime

Most of the charges under this category were cyber-enabled crimes: indecent communication; causing a child to look at a sexual image; and making, possessing, and sharing of indecent images.

In these cases the accused tend to be several years older than the complainers: the accused (mainly male) were aged between 15-17 years, and complainers (mainly female) were aged between 11-14 years.

In the majority of cases the accused and complainers were either friends or known to each other because they attend the same school (although the only contact between them may have been online).

In other cases, the accused and complainers knew each other solely through online communication on apps like Snapchat.

In many cases the exchange of sexual images between young people was consensual and reciprocated. A common theme within these cases is that of offences coming to light when a parent checked their child's phone or tablet and reporting the matter to the police.

A separate, distinct group of cases within the sample were those where threats and coercion were used by the accused to demand indecent images, or to demand sexual activity once indecent images had been received.

Almost one quarter of the sample of 'other sexual crime' cases (n=11) involved possession by young men of indecent images of children, including images of the sexual abuse of young children. Some cases involved the accused sharing these with others. In all except one of these cases the accused (aged 14-17) was not previously known to social work or police, and had no noted vulnerabilities. This is of concern as these young people do not display the background history that is common with the majority of under 18 accused involved in other HSB.[105]

Points from the COPFS cases

A number of points for consideration arise from the study of this specific sample of cases, which are not presented in any order of priority:

  • The gendered nature of sexual offences is reflected in this sample.
  • In the case of cyber-enabled sexual offences, the overwhelming majority of young people accused of sexual crimes had not previously come to the attention of the police or social work. Two thirds of those accused of 'Other sexual crimes', and around 40% of those charged with 'Rape, Attempted Rape and Sexual Assault', did not have previous offending behaviour and were not known to social work or police.
  • However across the categories of sexual crime, there was a small group of young males who displayed abusive and violent sexual behaviour, who had come to the attention of the police on a frequent basis.
  • Some young people do not understand the law, the risks of breaking the law and the consequences. Sexual exploration is a normal part of adolescent development but the digital medium for some of this exploration and the legal framework around sexual communication online presents risks to young people who choose to explore their sexual feelings in this way even when their activities are consensual.[106]
  • The type of knowledge displayed by young people about sexual matters appears to have been gained through access to pornography via the internet and social media.


For the 216 children who were referred to SCRA in 2016-17 for allegedly committing at least one sexual offence, the following data was collated:

  • The sex and age of the children
  • The category of the alleged sexual offences
  • The care and protection history of the children (previous referrals to SCRA)

Referred Children and Young People

Of these children, 89% were male (n=193) and 11% were female (n=23).

The youngest of the children was 9 years old, and the eldest was 17 years old. As the following chart shows, over half were in the age group 14-15 years (55%):[107]

Number of children by age referred for alleged sexual offences 2016/17

The following table shows the number of children referred to SCRA for offences (grouped by sexual offence category), some of whom had been referred on the grounds of having committed more than one type of sexual offence:

Sexual Offence Category Number of children referred
Rape & Attempted Rape 29
Sexual Assault 101
Other Sexual Crimes 117

Care and Protection History of Children Referred for Sexual Offences in 2016-17

Of the 216 children referred for sexual offences, 130 (60%) had previously been referred to SCRA at a younger age on care and protection grounds.[108]

Lack of parental care was the most common cause for the historic referrals; 91 of the children (70%) of those with a care and protection history had been referred on this ground.

The second most common ground was being a child victim (63 children [48% of those with a care and protection history]).

Other Sources of Information on Frequency

The Expert Group received information from a number of third sector organisations about calls received by helplines and the number of times relevant information on their websites is viewed.

Whilst much of this is helpful in terms of demonstrating that there is a need for support services that are easy for the public to access, many of these organisations do not collect information in a way that allows cases of HSB by children and young people to be differentiated in their statistics from calls about adults engaging in HSB against children and young people.[109]

Expert Group Findings and Conclusions

It is difficult to establish exact numbers of incidents that can be described as HSB by a child or young person that involves another child or young person.[110] It is widely accepted that there are many more incidents of HSB than are reported to Police Scotland or other statutory organisations.

Improved data would assist in finding out the true extent of this type of HSB, and so inform better allocation of resource and service delivery. Because of the complex number of factors that seem to be involved in cases of HSB towards children and young people from other children and young people, research at an incident-based level would be more helpful than that at a higher, statistical level.

Behaviours are constantly changing as the social and technological environment within which children and young people live, changes.

Without improved consistency about concerns that should be recorded (and how), it will be difficult for all statutory authorities (including schools and CPCs), to obtain a clear picture of patterns, frequency, nature and severity of behaviours, and so identify relevant supports and preventions that could be focused upon.

Expert Group Proposal

Agreement should be reached between Scottish Government, Statutory Authorities and Third Sector organisations working with children and young people about the data that should be collected and analysed to obtain insight into the numbers of incidents and the needs of those children and young people involved.


Email: Child_Protection@gov.scot

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