Police have warned teenagers of the risks that sending self-generated explicit images to each other in messages, known as 'sexting', can pose to their safety, with the possibility they could wind up on the sex offenders' register.
Several teenagers have already been cautioned over the practice of sharing explicit material of themselves or their friends with others, and police have stressed the risk that sexting poses to teens' future welfare, as well as their criminal record.
Nottinghamshire police have written to schools to voice "grave concerns" over the number of referrals they receive on a daily basis about teenagers sending naked images to each other through social media, mobile phone apps such as Snapchat or in messages.
By way of example, the letter cites the case of a teenage girl under the age of 18 who sent a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend and who was investigated for distributing an indecent image of a child. The girl’s boyfriend received a caution himself for sending the message to his friends after the couple split up.
Detective Inspector Martin Hillier stressed in the letter that teenagers can face court action for these offences, and could be forced to register as a sex offender.
He said it is "crucial" for under-18s understand that every internet site and social networking site is monitored by an administrator, and that pictures that fall within the category of an indecent image – even if taken with consent – are uploaded, reports are then made by the administrators to the police.
"If a person is aged over 10 years and distributes (shares - even to friends) an indecent image then they can be arrested, charged and dealt with for this offence. If they are found guilty they must then register as a sex offender," he wrote.
Schools have been urged to forward this letter to parents, and for them to also speak to their children about the dangers of sexting.
DI Hillier has tried to impress upon schoolchildren the permanency of the internet, adding that "an individual’s online reputation needs protecting as it stays with them for the rest of their life".
His words echo those of Nottinghamshire county council’s anti-bullying co-ordinator Lorna Naylor, who has spoken to children before about the implications of the images, which can be saved or copied by people, even if they appear on time-sensitive platforms such as Snapchat, where an image purports to disappear after 10 seconds or so.
"These images may never be completely removed and could be found in the future, for example when applying for jobs or university," Ms Naylor said.
"Young people may think 'sexting' is harmless but it can leave them vulnerable to blackmail where someone may threaten to share the pictures with family and friends unless they send more or more images," she added.