Some sexting cases involving children could be handled without launching a full-scale criminal investigation, according to new advice for police.
A briefing note has been issued to forces aiming to ensure a "common sense approach" is taken as more youngsters than ever before take explicit images of themselves.
The document, drawn up by the College of Policing, seeks to "support law enforcement professionals to respond in a proportionate way" to reports of children possessing, sharing or generating indecent imagery of themselves or their peers.
Such behaviour can be classed as an offence under the Protection of Children Act 1978 and Criminal Justice Act 1998.
The guidelines state that most offences involving sexual activity with children will require a "full criminal investigative response" - for example, in the presence of exploitation, coercion, a profit motive or adults as perpetrators.
It adds: "Offences involving self-generated images or images obtained with consent by other children may be dealt with differently.
"Forces may, for example, consider that suitably experienced first responders, safer school officers or neighbourhood teams can provide an appropriate response, thereby avoiding stigmatising children or causing them unnecessary fears and concerns."
In deciding whether criminal justice processes are necessary and proportionate, forces will wish to consider the long-term impact of investigation and prosecution - such as labelling a child a "sex offender" and potential disclosure as part of background checks, the paper says.
The trend for sharing explicit images among youngsters has emerged as a challenging issue for authorities following the explosion in smartphone ownership - with warnings that it can leave teenagers vulnerable to exploitation or blackmail.
Last year it was disclosed that child protection officers are probing one case involving the practice every day, while figures showed hundreds of under-18s have been investigated for sexting.
There have been calls for crime recording rules to be adapted so under-18s are not routinely criminalised for the practice.
In one reported episode a 14-year-old boy was added to a police database after he sent a naked image of himself to a female classmate on picture messaging app Snapchat.
Simon Bailey, National Police Chief's Council lead for child protection, said: "More children than ever before are taking explicit images of themselves and this briefing note is a valuable resource for officers when dealing with these sensitive cases.
"It highlights the need for forces to consider the long-term impact of investigation and prosecution on young people.
"We will take all cases seriously with criminal investigations into those involving any form of exploitation. But it will always be a common-sense approach that doesn't criminalise children unnecessarily."
He added: "It is important that this activity isn't viewed as just harmless teenage behaviour.
"There are significant risks involved for children and young people; once image is sent, control is lost, and it can cause significant distress when it gets into wider hands.
"We are clear that if this behaviour can be dealt with in other - more appropriate - ways then it should be."
The new guidance was welcomed by the NSPCC.
A spokesman for the charity said: "We have long believed that unless there is evidence of coercion or exploitation children caught up in this behaviour should not be criminalised, but rather educated about the dangers and supported to manage the pressures that they may face to take part.
"Children need to know that creating and sharing these images can put them at risk of being targeted by predatory adults."