When nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were stolen from Apple's iCloud and leaked online, the online privacy debate went viral.

The incident also highlighted how popular the practice is: 54 percent of U.S. adults participate in sexting, according to a recent study from security software firm McAfee. Sending racy texts, nude photos or explicit videos is most common among the 18-24 age group, with 70 percent saying they've received such a message.

With the risks so obvious, why do people do it?

Basic human instincts, experts said.

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Our desire to connect is primal, but our daily lives are often physically disconnected, said Dara Greenwood, an associate professor of psychology at Vassar who studies mass media's impact on our perceptions of ourselves. Combined with the capabilities of today's technology, the selfie seemed inevitable (the naked selfie is an even more loaded phenomenon, she said).

"We derive a sense of self and identity from being seen, both literally and figuratively, and valued, so there is additional motivation to broadcast the self via photograph," Greenwood said. "In some ways the ubiquity of this photo-taking and sharing option may be overdetermining the behaviors that follow. In some basic sense, we take selfies because we can."

Life and love consultant Emily Straubel agrees, and says that sexting can be a positive method of expressing sexuality in relationships -- as long as a quick discussion of ground rules is established first.

"The things driving it are basic human nature," she said. "It's not an exclusive phenomenon of the Millennial generation. Base human traits are the motivation."

And in the context of a relationship, it feels safe, she said.

"I think a lot of people feel that there's so much trust in a relationship, they don't feel like it's necessarily taking a risk, just being flirtatious," she said.

When we see celebrities doing it, we're even more apt to snap those revealing shots -- again following a "fundamentally human phenomena that predated all this modern technology," Greenwood said. "Some of the trend is spread by social modeling and a desire to fit in with the group," she said.

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Some personality types are more likely to engage in photo-based social media trends, Greenwood and Straubel said. People who are compelled by the idea of fame are more likely to follow and interact with celebrities online -- but they "may also end up feeding the very anxieties that motivated them to begin with (Am I important? Am I good enough?)" Greenwood said.

When people become too accustomed to looking at themselves from the outside in, she said, they may wind up putting too much emphasis on sex appeal -- making themselves overly vulnerable to the responses of others. (This may be especially true of adolescent sexting, which comes with its own unique dynamics, according to recent research.)

Indeed, there's a fine line between suggestive and exhibitionist, Straubel said.

"A selfie is one thing, a sexy photo is another, but a completely nude selfie is indicating something else," she said.

In the end, the technology may well enable social connection and self-worth, but in some cases it may also end up alienating us, unintentionally preventing us from more authentic communication and more multi-dimensional ways of being who we are, Greenwood said.

Because the act is so rooted in human nature, though, experts believe the trend will continue.