Many young people choose to share naked selfies despite knowing the risks because they see it as a “normal and fun” part of relationships, a worrying study has shown.
Researchers discovered that some children as young as 12 are sharing nude images through their phones and social media.
And for many of the study group, consisting of people who had shared naked photos under the age of 18, it was a natural way of exploring their sexuality and something they did with a trusted partner.
But some admitted they were coerced and threatened, often by strangers they met online.
The study - called Self Produced Images - Risk Taking Online (SPIRTO) -- also revealed the difficulty police, parents and schools faced in trying to differentiate between normal behaviour and abuse
Dr Ethel Quayle from the University of Edinburgh said: “The experiences of the young people varied from coercive online grooming where children were pressured to produce images by use of aggressive threats, to the other end of the spectrum where the images were produced in a romantic and caring relationship.
“In between we saw different levels of what might be thought of as coercion, where children felt an expectation that sending selfies is what people are doing, and if you didn’t do it there was something wrong with you.
“The consequences of sending the images were not always absolutely catastrophic, but they were for some people.
“The problem is how do we differentiate between sexting, which we may not like or approve of but is taking place in the context of a consensual romantic relationship, from something which we really need to take seriously?”
SPIRTO found that 73 per cent sent images because they were asked to, either by their partner or a stranger.
Some felt a level of pressure in consensual relationships to please their partner and feel they “fitted in”.
They admitted being asked to send images as proof of loving their partner and found it hard to say no.
Meanwhile, 59 per cent said they sent the photo because it was fun, exciting and a good way to meet people and flirt.
Another 59 per cent of youngsters said they were asked to send photos by a romantic partner and saw it a natural part of a relationship.
And 47 per cent said they sent nude pictures to get attention and compliments about their looks, with girls saying it helped build self confidence.
Eight per cent described an intense need to send selfies and this was starting to affect their school work or social lives.
The study also found that sending nude images did not always mean the teen had started having sex, but it was a way to explore their sexuality.
Twelve per cent said they had been explicitly coerced into sending naked selfies, with perpetrators threatening to share images already sent with the victim’s family.
Participants revealed they carefully considered whether or not to send a naked picture, and were aware of the risks, taking steps to avoid them.
This included not putting their face in the photo or showing any identifying marks like tattoos.
Many kept similar images of the other person as a form of mutually assured destruction.
Most naked selfies were not shared beyond the intended recipient.
But 16 per cent of young people said their parents and the school had found out, usually because the pictures were found on a mobile phone.
This had led to an intervention involving police and school staff and had caused shame and embarrassment.
Twenty-two per cent also said their selfies were shown to their peers - in several instances this led to harassment, threats or bullying and the police getting involved.
There are no guidelines to help police and social workers deal with naked selfies of children being shared without their permission.
Police have to investigate if there is a suggestion another person may be involved.
Dr Quayle has now launched a new study with clinical psychologist Dr Laura Cariola, putting the concerns of children at the heart of policy recommendations.
Youngsters have been asked how police, social workers, teachers and parents can help them when naked selfies are shared without their permission.
The preliminary results show that simply being listened to and not judged are the most important things a parent can do to help.
Dr Quayle added: “Maybe we have to accept that where it is not abused by others, the creation of images within a romantic and sexual relationship is part and parcel of growing up for some young people.
“For some groups, such as lesbian, gay and bisexual young people, it may be that this is their only route into exploring their sexuality and first relationships.
“However, we need to make sure that appropriate support structures are in place for when things may go wrong.”
The results of the study will be presented at the Festival of Social Science event in Edinburgh on November 11.