Cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent offences among 12-15 year olds referred to the Children’s Reporter

Posted on 22nd Jan 2024
student studying on internet

SCRA has produced a new research report today (Monday 22nd January).

The report ‘Cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent offences among 12-15 year olds referred to the Children’s Reporter’ examined all referrals made to the Children’s Reporter on offence grounds between the 1st of April 2018 and the 31st of March 2023. It also examined the cases of 12 children aged 12-15 who had been referred to the Reporter for online or social media related offences. These data were drawn from a wider dataset used to understand the experiences of 12-15 year olds referred to the Children’s Reporter and Procurator Fiscal on offence grounds.

What cybercrimes are referred to the Reporter?
The report findings highlight that although cybercrimes constitute less than 3% of offence referrals received by the Children’s Reporter, there has been a notable increase in the number of cybercrimes being referred to the Reporter.

Nearly all (99%) of cybercrimes referred to the Reporter are cyber-enabled offences. These are crimes which are committed using the internet or by accessing an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) device. The three most common offences referred to the Reporter related to:

  • The sending of offensive, false or indecent messages to another individual.
  • The taking, possession or distribution of indecent, obscene or pornographic images.
  • Disclosing or threatening to disclose intimate or sexual images of another person.

In particular, our results show that since 2018 there has been a change in the types of charges being received by the Reporter, with more children being charged with the taking, distributing and possessing of indecent images and the sending of non-sexual offensive messages.

Backgrounds of 12-15 year olds referred for social media related offences
The report examined the backgrounds of 12 children referred to the Reporter for social media related offences. Overall, 58% of the sample were referred for online offences relating to the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, including the distribution of indecent images of a child(ren) or the sending of offensive sexual messages. The rest were referred for sending non-sexual offensive messages. A quarter of the sample were considered to have committed a serious violent or sexual offence alongside the online offence.

The children referred for online offences tended to be male and had backgrounds characterised by childhood maltreatment, school exclusion, mental health difficulties and parental offending. 1 in 2 of the children were known to social work services at the point they committed the offence, while 1 in 4 were already subject to compulsory measures of supervision.

In terms of referral pathways, 75% of the children were referred directly to the Children’s Reporter for their online offences. The remaining 25% were jointly reported to the Reporter and the Procurator Fiscal; however in all cases the Fiscal decided not to prosecute and remitted the case back to the Reporter. This meant that all of the online offences were addressed through the Children’s Hearings System.

After investigation, Children’s Hearings were arranged for 25% of the children. The remainder of the children were either referred to the local authority for additional support, or were supported through existing measures or the actions of their families. In 58% of the cases it was identified that the online offence had stemmed from: the use of online messaging to continue disputes between children; the breakup of friendships that had escalated to the sending of aggressive and threatening messages via social media; low mood and mental health issues affecting decisions around the sending of messages and images; and some children engaging in what they perceived to be consensual activity.

Our findings indicate that the number of children being referred to the Reporter for cybercrimes, whilst small, is increasing. The nature of the offences being referred points to an ongoing need for information about online relationships and safety, as well as issues of consent and the legalities of sharing sexualised imagery and messaging via phones and the internet, to be included within sexual health, relationships and parenting education.

The data presented here does not provide a complete reflection on how cyber-offending by children is addressed in Scotland. As the rate of cybercrimes increases, there is a need to understand in more detail the experiences of young people who have been charged with these offences. Next steps in this area should include identifying how many young people in Scotland are charged with cybercrimes each year, and the referral mechanisms for dealing with these offences. This would include looking at the role that referral to effective and early intervention programmes, the Reporter and the Procurator Fiscal play in addressing the needs of children who have committed a cybercrime.

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