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Why are young people sharing nude selfies?

Many young people are aware of the risks of sending naked selfies, but often choose to do so anyway because they see it as a fun and normal part of relationships, a study to be highlighted at the ESRC Festival of Social Science has shown.

The report found that children, some as young as 12, are sharing these photos - 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. Some however were coerced and threatened, often by strangers they had met online.  

The research findings of 'Self-Produced Images - Risk Taking Online' (SPIRTO) demonstrate the difficulties police, parents and schools face in distinguishing between normal, healthy behaviour and illegal abuse. Led by Dr Ethel Quayle at the University of Edinburgh, key findings of SPIRTO, which was funded by the European Union's Safer Internet Programme, included:

  •  Seventy-three per cent sent images because they were asked to, either by their partner or someone unknown to them. Even amongst consensual relationships, there was a level of pressure felt to please that person and to feel that they 'fitted in'. Some were asked to send photos as proof of loving their partner, and they found it hard to say no.
  • Fifty-nine per cent of the teens said they sent the photos because it was fun, exciting and a good way of flirting and meeting people.
  • Fifty-nine per cent were asked to send photos by a romantic partner - many saw it as a natural part of a relationship, which was expected of them from within their peer group.
  • Forty-seven per cent said that they sent nude pictures as a way of getting attention and compliments about their looks. Girls in particular said it helped build their self-confidence.
  • For a minority, the need for self-affirmation had spiralled out of their control. Eight per cent described having an intense need to send images, and this was starting to affect their school work or social situation with friends.
  • Sending nude images did not necessarily mean the young person had started to have sex, but the images formed part of their adolescent development and allowed them to explore their sexuality.
  • Twelve per cent described being explicitly coerced into sending nude images. Often the perpetrator threatened to share images that had already been sent with the victim's family.

Rather than making a rash decision, most of the participants carefully considered whether or not to send a naked photo of themselves. Most were aware of the risks, and often took steps to mitigate them, such as not including their face in the photo, or any clear identifying marks such as tattoos. Many kept compromising photos of the other person as a sort of mutually assured destruction.

In the majority of cases, naked selfies were not shared beyond the intended recipient.
However, 16 per cent of the young people reported that their parents and the school had found out that they sent photos, usually because the images had been found on a mobile phone. Often this had led to the youngster receiving an intervention from the police, school staff and their parents, which had caused intense 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.

"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," says Dr Ethel Quayle. "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?

Currently there aren't any guidelines to help police and social workers deal with cases where naked selfies taken by children have been shared without their permission. Police in the UK have to investigate if there is a suggestion another person may be involved, and it is enormously resource demanding for the police.  

Dr Quayle is now working with Dr Laura Cariola, a clinical psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, in a new ESRC-funded study which puts the concerns of children at the heart of policy recommendations. The young people are being asked how police, social workers, teachers and parents can help them when things go wrong - when a naked selfie is shared amongst the whole school or ends up on the internet. The preliminary results show that simply being listened to and not judged are the most important things a parent can do to help.

"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," says Dr Quayle. "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 this study will be presented as part of the Festival of Social Science invite-only event 'Let's talk about sexting', at Walpole Hall, in Edinburgh, on 11 November at 10.00.

You can find out more on this topic by watching the video series.

Further information

  • Dr Ethel Quayle, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology
    University of Edinburgh, School of Health in Social Science
  • Joanne Morrison, Press and PR Officer, University of Edinburgh
    Telephone: 0131 651 4266

Notes for editors

  • 'Let's talk about sexting' will see an invited group of young people, teachers and child protection workers explore the issues raised by sexting.
  • There will be a range of interactive activities including workshop sessions, talks and small group discussion. Participants will discuss the topic of sexual exploitation and the misuse of modern technology, and then create posters and short films. Alongside the discussions, there will be an exhibition of art work, poetry and short stories which will be shared on Tumblr. #letstalkaboutsexting
  • The 14th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 5-12 November 2016 with more than 270 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country's leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there's something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available online. You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. We also develop and train the UK’s future social scientists. Our research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. Most importantly, it makes a real difference to all our lives. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  • The research was funded by the European Union’s Safer Internet Programme and included interviews with 51 young people, the majority aged 14 to 17.
  • Download a copy of the report.(PDF on external site)


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