Child sexting fears 'raised daily'
Child protection officers are investigating one case involving "sexting" every day, National Crime Agency has disclosed.
Intervention has been required to safeguard youngsters at risk after sending nude or explicit images of themselves on social media or messaging services.
The practice has become " normal" among teenagers but can leave them vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail, the NCA said.
On average, the NCA's centre for tackling abuse, Ceop Command, receives one report a day of a child protection issue linked to sexting.
In some instances youngsters are targeted by strangers who attempt to blackmail them over images they have been tricked into taking.
Other cases involve recipients of private messages forwarding them to others or a user posting a picture of themselves on a website or social media with low privacy settings.
The NCA is today launching a campaign to give parents advice on how to respond if their child becomes involved in sexting.
Zoe Hilton, head of safeguarding at Ceop Command, said staff receive reports of "difficult and sometimes harmful" situations linked to sexting.
"We are talking about cases where sexting has led to a child protection issue," she said.
"Something that has started out as relatively innocent or normal for the young people involved has unfortunately turned into something that is quite nasty and needs intervention in order to safeguard and protect the child.
"Some of the worst examples are children sharing images of themselves and making themselves very vulnerable. That image gets into the wrong hands or that image is used to blackmail the child for further images.
"The images get into the hands of someone who then uses it to exploit the child or seek to harm or disadvantage the child in some way."
Ceop deals with cases involving boys and girls aged 13 or above. Reports are made by children, parents or teachers.
Ms Hilton said: "A lot of it doesn't lead to bad outcomes. What can happen where sexting doesn't just stay within the community of teenagers or the other person (is) it somehow gets posted up on a site, it's found by an offender, it's used then to target the young person.
"Or the young person thinks they are sending it to someone they trust and actually that person turns out to be quite exploitative and not who they think they are.
"Those are the ways that innocence around sexting and the fact that young people are doing it a lot and see it as a relatively normal thing can go wrong."
Last year reports emerged of children being warned they could face prosecution in the criminal courts for sharing graphic pictures over the internet.
Ms Hilton said there was no benefit in criminalising teenagers who take part in sexting.
She said: "I think we have to recognise that sexting is actually very normative behaviour for children and young people.
"These are kids growing up in a very image-saturated environment. They are copying what they see older young adults do."
The NCA campaign aims to help parents deal with the problem and includes a number of short animations developed following a research project involving the University of Edinburgh.
Ms Hilton said: "With smartphones and tablets, and new apps emerging all the time, this behaviour is becoming quite normal for teenagers. But i t can be alarming for mum and dad, who might not know how to help when things go wrong.
"We want to help parents and carers talk to their children about how to minimise the risks, and to make sure the right support is there if things do go wrong."
A spokesman for the NSPCC said sexting is a "huge problem" and can leave children "devastated".
" Children can send sexual images of themselves in an instant and often don't really think about the consequences," he said.
"Often it is to a girlfriend or boyfriend but these images can quickly end up being shared widely in school and online."
Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently investigating the death of 17-year-old R onan Hughes, who apparently took his own life following online bullying.
Superintendent Mike Baird said: "It is understood the schoolboy took his own life after he had been tricked into posting images on a social networking site."
Ronan, from Co Tyrone, was found dead in the Coole Road area of Coalisland on June 5.
Daniel Perry, 17, from Dunfermline in Fife, died in July 2013 after f alling victim to an alleged ''sextortion'' attempt, in which internet users are lured into webcam chats and then blackmailed with the footage.
The teenager is said to have believed he was talking to an American girl on Skype but was told by blackmailers that the conversations had been recorded and
would be shared with friends and family unless he paid up.
Barnardo's chief executive Javed Khan said the charity was seeing more sexting among the people it works with and called for tailored sex and healthy relationship education to be offered in all schools.
Justine Roberts, chief executive of parenting website Mumsnet, said: "No parent wants their child to be exploited, hurt or bullied online, but some adults can feel a bit bewildered by the many different apps, sites and platforms, and by web-based scenarios that just didn't occur when they were growing up.
"More hard information for both kids and parents, such as that being provided by Ceop, is always welcome as families negotiate the possibilities and pitfalls of new tech."
:: The animations can be viewed at www.thinkuknow.co.uk