CHILDREN as young as 14 are being arrested for ‘youth sexting’ despite police guidance against taking action that can leave youngsters with a criminal record.

Research commissioned by North Yorkshire-based charity the Marie Collins Foundation shows that young people are subject to a ‘postcode lottery’ over whether or not they are criminalised for sharing indecent images of themselves.

Under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, the generation or distribution of indecent images of children is illegal.

However, the legislation that sought to protect child victims did not foresee that, today, teenagers would routinely self-produce and distribute their own sexual images on mobile devices - a practice known as 'sexting'.

The 1978 legislation has been used to charge increasing numbers of teenagers over the years. Ministry of Justice data on juveniles entering the criminal justice system as a result of charges under the Protection of Children Act doubled between 2007 and 2016.

Being arrested and charged can affect a child’s future career since a recorded sex offence can remain on their record.

In response, in December 2016 the College of Policing issued guidance, known as Outcome 21, to address the increasing number of children being arrested for self-generated sexual imagery.

It meant that a crime could be recorded as “not in the public interest” and would not result in the young person having a criminal record.

The new research undertaken by University of Suffolk and based on Freedom of Information requests shows, however, that use of the guidance is inconsistent and, at times, disproportionate across the UK.

Data obtained reveals that young people, some aged under 14, are still being arrested and their activity recorded as crime.

The Ripon-based Marie Collins Foundation, which is dedicated to the recovery of young victims of online sexual abuse, commissioned the research as a result of growing concern regarding the continued criminalisation of children.

CEO Tink Palmer said: “The criminalisation of children is an issue that has been of concern to me for some time.

"This research is an initial exploration of how police forces are deploying the Outcome 21 guidance, and whether intention has transferred into practice.”

Based on data supplied by 32 police forces, the report shows that Outcome 21 is being applied by most of the forces that responded, sometimes far exceeding the number of arrests.

However, it also confirms that children under 14 are still being arrested and Mrs Palmer said she remained concerned about the apparent inconsistency of the application of Outcome 21.