How public health nurses’ deal with sexting among young people: a qualitative inquiry using the critical incident technique

Maria Clark, Alison Lewis, Sally Bradshaw, Caroline Bradbury-Jones

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5 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Globally, the potentially harmful effects of using cell phone technology for ‘sexting’ among young people, is a public health concern. The background literature indicates that sexting might have adverse psychosocial consequences for some young people who share partially nude images (‘selfies’). Public health nurses (PHNs) could offer guidance to children and young people on digital safety, yet little is known about their role in this regard. This study explored PHNs’ knowledge and confidence in addressing the issue among young people.

Method: A qualitative study was undertaken using the Critical Incident Technique. The study took place in 2016. Eighteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with PHNs in a region of England. Data were analysed through thematic analysis, and managed through the use of NViVo 11 software. From the entire data set, thirteen critical incidents were identified of which nine were deemed relevant for reporting in this paper.

Results: PHNs regarded sexting as a contemporary ‘normalised’ practice that takes place in what young people consider to be trusting relationships. PHNs’ knowledge was informed by media reports that supported their beliefs about young peoples’ vulnerability to risk-taking sexual behaviour. They were not confident about discussing sexting with young people, even though some PHNs had done so in light of concerns about potential child sexual exploitation.

Conclusion: PHNs have a role to play in advising young people on digital safety, but findings of the study show that their role is not fully realised. They have some knowledge of sexting as a possible signifier of abusive behaviour. However, they are not always confident in dealing with the issue. Improving PHNs ability to promote digital safety through better understanding of technology use among young people is good safeguarding practice. This may, in turn, better define this important nursing contribution to public health.
Original languageEnglish
Article number729
JournalBMC Public Health
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2018


  • Sexting
  • Young people
  • Child sexual exploitation
  • Public health nursing
  • Health visitors
  • School nurses
  • Digital safety
  • Technology
  • Risk
  • Vulnerability


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