Investigations into dozens of youngsters considered for prosecution in the North over indecent images of children have been halted, prosecutors said.
Child protection expert Jim Gamble has proposed that the law be amended so that a child who takes or distributes a picture of him or herself will not commit a criminal offence.
Police already deal with the matter “sensitively” and only one child was prosecuted out of 79 investigated by the authorities over the alleged sharing of intimate images during a two-year period, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) confirmed.
Mr Gamble, former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: “It is about making the law more intelligent.
“If we decriminalise it the children will come forward to get help and fewer will self-harm or commit suicide, which is what happens when the child is left with no hope when they have shared an image.
“It is about the trauma they will have gone through while an investigation is going on and the message that sends out to other children.”
Victims who lose control of sexualised photos of themselves are vulnerable to bullying, blackmail or revenge porn, an assessment for Stormont’s justice committee said.
Greater access to the internet and smartphones has made it easier to rapidly share inappropriate images.
Mr Gamble has recommended that provision should be made in law that a child who has an image of another child with malicious intent would commit a criminal offence.
Between March 1 2013 and March 31 2015, the PPS received 48 files relating to 79 suspects below the age of 18 in cases of indecent images of children and related alleged offences.
They included the suspected sharing of intimate images, either consensually or not, as well as cases where the recipient of an intimate image allegedly shared it with another child.
The PPS stated that of the 75 prosecution decisions made to March 31 2015, one was for prosecution, eight were for non-court diversions such as youth conferences or cautions and 66 were decisions of no prosecution, either because there was not enough evidence or it would not be in the public interest.
By 2021 nearly all households will have internet access and it has been reported that 65% of children aged between 12 and 15 in the UK own a smartphone, according to the justice committee report: Online Risks and Children.
An NSPCC spokesman said: “Sexting can be extremely damaging but we don’t believe that the most effective way of dealing with it is to prosecute children for sharing indecent images, unless there are other factors such as extreme coercion, threats or blackmail involved.
“If young people are involved in sexting, it is essential that they receive the appropriate support rather than being dragged through the courts.
“We know that large numbers of children see sending these images as routine - despite the risks – and that they can quickly lose control of them, even with them potentially ending up in the collections of sex offenders.”