A YOUNG teenage girl takes a naked photograph of herself and sends it to her boyfriend.

When they break up, the image is circulated by phone, email and social-networking sites. Suddenly, what was intended to be a foolish flirtatious message has become social death and shame.

One Scottish children's charity is so concerned about the growing problem of "sexting" – sending explicit images via text, email, instant messaging or social networking sites – it is now setting up a new project in conjunction with Lothian and Borders Police and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency to tackle the issue, which it plans to roll out across the country.

The apparent lack of understanding among today's children over privacy on the internet – whether it be posting details of their address and school on social networking sites or talking to strangers in chatrooms – is also fuelling serious concerns. One in every nine children in Scotland have seen or received sexual messages online, according to recent research.

Children's charities say they have seen a rising number of referrals in the past year in relation to concerns over sexting and other types of sexual exploitation of youngsters via the internet.

Scotland's largest police force, Strathclyde, has also warned it is carrying out investigations every day of paedophiles targeting children through social media, with the reported cases only the "tip of the iceberg". In one recent investigation, a man was found to be using more than 30 different online identities to target children.

There are plenty of anecdotes about sexting. Boys being excluded from school for sending round provocative images of ex-girlfriends. Pictures circulating round classrooms in multiple schools in the same area. Girls as young as 12 posing in their underwear and sending the pictures on to boys, sometimes referred to as "fan pics".

One recent study of 14 to 15-year-olds found that four out of 10 did not see anything inappropriate about a topless photograph and around one in six did not believe think there was anything inappropriate about a naked photograph.

Andy Phippen, professor of Social Responsibility in Information Technology at Plymouth University, who carried out the research, said: "It does raise the question, where the hell is the line drawn with this particular demographic in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable to send?"

It is clear teenagers are living in a very different world to the one their parents grew up in, surrounded by a highly sexualised culture and with pornography easily available on the internet. The song Dirty Picture by Taio Cruz and Ke$ha – with the lyrics "Take a dirty picture/Just send the dirty picture to me" reached number six in the UK charts in 2010.

Phippen said cases of celebrities such as TV presenter Vernon Kay and footballer Ashley Cole, who have hit the headlines for sexting, had boosted the popularity of the practice among teenagers in recent years.

He said: "When celebrities are doing it, obviously it moves more into the teen population. But there is a huge amount of peer influence in this area as well. A boyfriend will say to his girlfriend 'so and so's girlfriend has done it so why don't you' and all those sorts of things."

The project to tackle sexting is being set up by Stop it Now! Scotland, which campaigns against child abuse. National manager Martin Henry said it was concerned it was being viewed as "normal behaviour" among teenagers, with a substantial number of reports over such incidents now being received by police.

"Clearly what we don't want to do is to allow that behaviour to go unchecked," he said. "If you send an image, no matter how innocently or experimentally, it is out there for good. That is one of the worries and I think a lot of young people don't understand that. The behaviour also has aspects of sexual bullying, which you don't really want young people to keep on engaging in."

Henry pointed out that many young people were not aware that sending indecent images of children is illegal and amounts to the distribution of child pornography.

The project will involve workers from the charity visiting children who have been reported to police and their parents to talk through the impact of such behaviour. Funding is currently being sought to set up a pilot with Lothian and Borders Police, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency and Barnardo's Scotland, with the intention of rolling it out across Scotland if successful.

Henry added: "I think it is important young people don't get unnecessarily criminalised. [But] where there is serious risk and young people are doing a lot of dangerous stuff, that absolutely needs to be taken much more seriously."

Psychologist Professor Monica Whitty, of the department of media and communications at the University of Leicester, said sexting was not a healthy way for teenagers to develop. "It is a normal thing for young people to explore sexuality and that has always been the case," she said. "This is not a new generation wanting to be sexual, but rather they have got new technology to do that and they just can't foresee what damage can be done when they do things like sexting."

Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive of charity Beatbullying, said: "The most worrying thing for us is when a young person seems to think it is normal behaviour to take a naked photo and send it to your boyfriend or girlfriend.

"Lots of them say they didn't feel right doing it, they didn't feel comfortable doing it, but they also didn't feel comfortable saying 'no' to it.

"They felt there was some kind of peer pressure involved and some worryingly thought it was normal thing to do as part of a relationship without fully understanding some of the consequences."

Trying to estimate the scale of the problem is difficult, with cases reported in schools often only recorded under general bullying statistics. Incidents reported to police can be covered by a wide range of legislation, including the Sexual Offences Scotland Act, which covers a person intentionally sending a sexual communication without the other person involved consenting to it and the Civic Government Scotland Act, which deals with distributing or showing an indecent image of a child under 18. Other pieces of legislation which can be used include the Communications Act and the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences Act.

But the Crown Office said that according to guidelines there should be a "clear presumption" against prosecuting children unless it is a serious offence and most cases will be dealt with by the Children's Reporter.

Detective Inspector Eamonn Keane, head of the e-crime unit at the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency, said: "It is such an embryonic area of crime, we do not want to use a hammer to crack a nut with regards to kids – do they realise the consequences of their actions? Through the work of school campus officers and headteachers, we are trying to encourage children to be clever and careful in regards to their use of the internet and smartphones."

A recent Europe-wide study found around one in nine children in the UK aged 11-16 have seen or received sexual messages online. A quarter of the parents said they were aware of their children having seen or received such messages, but almost half said they had not.

Study co-author Sonia Livingstone, professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: "I think there is a naivety [among parents] about how young children are becoming interested.

"They expect the 15 and 16-year-olds to be looking at pornography and exchanging sexual images, but they don't expect it at all of their 10, 11 or 12 year olds and I think parents are reluctant to start those conversations with their children."

Embarrassment – and fear of losing phone or internet access – can lead to children who have sent out sexual images of themselves refusing to seek help from parents when the image starts to spread or friends turn against them.

Daljeet Dagon, children services manager for charity Barnardo's Scotland, said they had seen a rising number of referrals in the past year over concerns about children being sexually exploited via the internet.

With children having as many as 2500 friends on social networking sites, images can go viral within a matter of minutes of hitting the send button. And the lack of awareness over who they may be connecting with via the internet is of major concern to police authorities.

Detective Chief Inspector Norrie Conway, child protection lead for Strathclyde Police, said: "We are seeing investigations every day of paedophiles targeting young children through social media.

"We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg as a lot of stuff is going unreported to us and the kids are unwittingly sharing inappropriate and indecent messages. The minute they lose control of that indecent image they can never get it back again."