Intervention has been required to safeguard youngsters at risk after sending nude or explicit images of themselves on social media.
The practice has become “normal” among teenagers but can leave them vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
On average, the NCA’s centre for tackling abuse, CEOP Command – formerly the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre – 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.
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 added: “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 not who they think they are.
“Those are the ways innocence around sexting and the fact young people are doing it a lot and see it as a 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.
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 it 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.”
The animations can be viewed at www.thinkuknow.co.uk