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 1: General Observations

Sexual behaviours that cause harm to others are among the most upsetting and concerning for society and can invoke public outrage, particularly when the person harmed is a child or young person.

The often significant and ongoing impact of such harmful incidents has become much better understood over recent decades. Although our collective responses have room for improvement, there have been a number of new and better approaches to supporting the reporting of, and recovery from, such experiences. There is also clear political will to continue to develop improved preventative strategies and healing responses.

Psychosexual development is a normal and necessary part of human functioning. Children and young people learn what, why and how relationships function from their very earliest days of life. Socialisation is an ongoing process influenced by myriad factors - some internal and some external.

As cultural norms have changed, in particular since the 1960s, so too have the accepted methods and content of communications and behaviours within romantic and intimate relationships of the population as a whole, including those of children and young people.

The current content of TV programmes, songs and internet sites is much more sexualised than that of the mid-20th century, and public reference to, and acceptance of, various sexual behaviours has also changed dramatically over the past 50 years.

Sexual exploration and experimentation are normal parts of child and adolescent development and are important in shaping each child's sexual identity and their understanding of how to conduct healthy and appropriate social and personal relationships with others. In particular, adolescence is a time of the most significant physical, emotional and development change. It can be a period when sexual drives are at their most urgent, but some young people have less experience and understanding of their own and others' sexuality and sexual boundaries. Rule breaking, sensation seeking and lack of consequential thinking are relatively commonplace amongst adolescents. This may impact on sexual choices, as will the ways many young people now do this exploration (with sharing of intimate images and other online means being more accessible).

Keeping our children and young people safe while allowing them to develop to their full potential is the responsibility of all adults in Scotland[5] .

The question of appropriate responses to children and young people who harm other children and young people by their sexual behaviour, and potential actions that prevent their causing further harm in the future, has been the subject of some research as well as public debate.

Although in Scotland, there is a much more coordinated approach than other parts of the UK[6], responses in the main are adult-based.

The improved awareness of the public, and many front line professionals, about these types of behaviours still usually assumes that the person causing harm will be an adult. The current criminal justice responses therefore are largely predicated on the requirements of dealing with an adult.

Estimates suggesting that around one third[7] of all Harmful Sexual Behaviour (HSB) towards children and young people is committed by others under 18 is likely to be surprising and shocking to a great many people.

Existing Scottish Frameworks

All current protection policies for children and young people in Scotland, including the measures taken in respect of those who are harmed by HSBs, or who cause harm, stem from the internationally agreed rights of children and young people, and the Scottish policies, strategies, practice and law which support these.

The specific rights of children and young people and the duties imposed on Scotland by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) [8] and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)[9] were at the forefront throughout the Expert Group's considerations.

These rights underpin the approach of Scottish Government and all statutory authorities and are identified as crucial in any work involving Child Protection, Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) and Equally Safe[10],[11].

The National Guidance for Child Protection in Scotland[12] and GIRFEC already provide a national framework to assist agencies and practitioners at a local level to draw up and agree on ways of working to promote the welfare and safety of children and young people and are essential components of the collaborative work required on prevention of and response to HSBs. Equally Safe[13] was created to take action on all forms of violent and abusive behaviour directed at women and girls 'precisely because they are women and girls.' It is rooted in the gendered analysis[14] approach with the aim of changing societal and cultural attitudes to ensure that all Scotland's 'citizens flourish and are Equally Safe'. The work of this Expert Group forms part of the Equally Safe delivery plan.[15]

The Framework for Risk Assessment, Management and Evaluation (FRAME) and the Care and Risk Management (CARM)[16] processes provide a framework for professionals in relation to the management of risk for young people who present a risk of harm.

The age at which the law in Scotland considers a person to be an adult or a child in respect of differing sexual activities, relationship models and other behaviours, varies across different Acts of Parliament,[17] as does the description of the offence type against children of differing ages.

These differences in the operation of the law can be confusing to children and young people, their parents, carers and professionals.

The legal rights of children and the duties of public authorities towards them are distinct from those of adults; as are the obligations these impose on statutory authorities to consider the wellbeing of the child who caused the harm, including making age and developmentally appropriate responses, whilst balancing obligations of public safety.

"There are specific circumstances in which children and young people may present a risk of serious harm to others because of their own behaviours. These can include situations where children and young people are involved in HSB and/or sexual offending and/or violence.
Many young people involved with offending of a serious nature will have complex needs and may have experienced multiple adverse life experiences in their lives. This group presents many challenges for services which need to manage the risks presented in order to promote public safety while also offering opportunities for them to develop and to become positive contributors to society."

In cases of HSB, balancing of rights can be particularly difficult to accept for those close to the child harmed as well as the general public.

There is therefore a real and pressing need for public authorities to continue to proceed on evidence-based policies and evaluated interventions in such sensitive cases.

Definitions and Descriptions

A major source of challenge involved in delivering preventative activities is the number of different professional specialisms that may be involved. As understanding has grown of the HSB that can be exhibited by children and young people, so too have the attempts to categorise and differentiate these behaviours, which has resulted in different phrases being used to describe more-or-less the same thing. There are also some words and phrases which mean quite different things to different professional groupings. Two examples of this, shared early on in the lifetime of the Expert Group, are 'Sexual Offending'[19] and 'Peer on Peer'.[20]

This issue is not easily resolved. Multiple descriptors cause problems for those extrapolating data from different organisations for comparison, when conducting literature reviews, and in designing guidance and processes for use across multiple organisations.

In addition there are a number of technical terms and shorthand expressions that require translation into plain English to aid communication for colleagues across a range of organisations (as well as children, young people, parents, carers, politicians and the media).

For example the term 'HSB' is understood by social work and mental health practitioners but is not widely used in school settings.

'Sexting' is commonly given as an example of a term used in Scotland and across the UK where adults often use it to mean sending intimate images, while children and young people more usually understand it to mean exchange of sexually explicit wording and not pictures.

The producing or sharing of intimate images or child abuse images has been variously described as behaviour with an 'internet' 'online' 'cyber-assisted' or technology-assisted' element.

In this report, the Expert Group has chosen to use certain wording and definitions to ensure clarity and consistency and have also tried to leave the author's preferred use of terminology in discussing the findings of other reports and articles where it is assumed that terminology is readily appreciated to be interchangeable.

Definitions adopted by the Expert Group are:

Harmful Sexual Behaviour(s) (HSB): sexual behaviour(s) expressed by children and young people under the age of 18 years that are developmentally inappropriate, may be harmful towards self or others and/ or be abusive towards another child or young person.[21]

What is harmful or developmentally inappropriate can be difficult to define and as stated earlier, the terminology used varies within different professions, highlighting the need for consistency.[22]

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary[23] Prevention:

  • primary prevention - keeping all children and young people from becoming involved in any form of harmful sexual behaviour;
  • secondary prevention - supporting children and young people who are harmed, and those who cause that harm (which is not of the most serious type); or focussed help to individuals and families where there appear to be factors suggesting risk of development of HSB;
  • tertiary prevention - supporting and rehabilitating those children and young people who are either harmed or who cause harm by the most serious types of harmful sexual behaviours.

Primary prevention activities are those aimed at all children and young people; secondary and tertiary are more specialised for the much smaller numbers involved in, and at risk of, increasingly serious HSB.

Consideration of all Three Levels of Preventative Work

The Group appreciated from the outset that there are overlaps between all three levels of prevention with the aim of primary prevention minimising the expression of behaviours at the secondary and tertiary levels; and also that preventative work in secondary and tertiary cases contributes to prevention for the whole population.


Email: Child_Protection@gov.scot

Back to top