Sending nude pictures on social media has become the new “flirting”, with a third of teenage girls saying they have been pressured into sending naked images of themselves, a study has found.
Sixty per cent of girls under the age of 18 told researchers they had been asked to provide a nude picture of themselves by a boy. Some 46 per cent said they had been pressured into doing so, even though they felt “disgusted” and upset by sharing images.
The research, based on nearly 5,200 teenagers in 46 schools, found more than a third of the girls surveyed said they had first been asked to send a nude image when they were 13 or younger. One in five girls and one in seven boys had shared naked images by the age of 18.
Snapchat, an instant messaging app where images disappear within 24 hours, accounted for more than 80 per cent of the shared nude pictures - raising concerns over the platform’s measures to protect children from online harms.
The research, the first to explore the phenomenon in detail, found boys sent nude images because they thought girls would like them and wanted to be sent pictures in return.
Girls were more likely to share them because they felt under pressure to do so and were left “disgusted” when sent images they did not want. Girls also felt “shamed” when their nude images were leaked, while boys found it could boost their social status, according to the researchers.
“Young people often see image-sharing as a normal phase at the start of a relationship or when they first start ‘seeing’ someone. It’s a part of flirting or judging whether the other person is ‘into’ you,” said the researchers.
“For some, it’s a way to check if the other person will find them attractive or be ‘okay’ with their body if they were to have a physical sexual encounter.”
But Revealing Reality, the research group behind the study and which has worked with the online safety watchdog Ofcom, warned such “flirting” could have dangerous consequences.
They found evidence of images being “traded” to bait other teenagers, “leaked” to humiliate or bully others, kept as an insurance policy by a teenager in case their shared nude image subsequently went viral or being used in power plays to exert control over others.
“What may start as flirting between two people can easily spread – to the rest of the class, across the school via large Snapchat or WhatsApp groups, beyond the school to the local area, and potentially across the world,” said the study report.
“Nude images of young people shared with other young people can easily find their way into the hands of adults whose intentions are harmful and whose actions are illegal.
“Given this potential for negative consequences, harm and unequal outcomes, the sheer scale of nude image-sharing gives pause for thought.”
One in five girls aged 14 to 18 had shared a nude image or video, compared with 13 per cent of boys. More than half - 54 per cent - of girls and 30 per cent of boys had been sent a nude image or video. Of those who had sent an image, 16 per cent said it happened at least once a week.
One in six - 17 per cent - of girls aged 14 to 16 had shared a nude image, rising to 26 per cent by the age of 17 and 18. For boys, it was 10 per cent rising to 23 per cent.
There were class distinctions. Nearly two-thirds of girls from a disadvantaged background - 62 per cent - had been asked to send a nude, compared with 52 per cent from better-off homes.
A Snapchat spokesman said: “Using Snapchat to send nudes or sexually explicit content is against our rules - no matter how old you are.
"If we become aware of any sexual content involving minors we immediately remove it - whether it’s identified through our detection technology or reported to us through our in-app reporting."