Children are increasingly being targeted on the web by sex offenders – with an average of 22 crimes a day taking place online last year, NSPCC figures have revealed.
Last year, a record 8,224 child sexual offences logged by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had an online element, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC through a Freedom of Information request.
A total of 40 out of 44 forces provided the NSPCC with data on cyber-related sex crimes against under 18s including online grooming, sexual communication with a child, and rape.
In the South West of England, there has been a significant increase in the number of recorded sexual offences against children that have a cyber flag attached. The number has risen from 187 across the region’s five police forces in 2015/16 to 334 in 2018/19.
The charity now calls on the next Prime Minister to stand firm against industry lobbying by prioritising online safety and bringing in laws that deliver a change in protection against abuse.
Molly (not her real name) lives in the South West of England and was 15 when she met Gavin (not his real name) at a youth organisation and began talking online. She thinks a change in the law would help a lot of young people who are receiving sexual messages from adults and unsure of how to handle the situation.
After a month and a half of talking to Gavin, the messages began getting more personal and sexual. She deleted the messages as she felt disgusted. He would send her messages asking to pick her up and take her to school. When she would ask if a friend could come along, he would refuse. He began to park outside her house and text her to tell her to go his car and sit with him.
After reporting the incidents to Police, she spent three days hiding away in her bedroom and stopped going to school. Molly was referred to the NSPCC’s Letting The Future In service, which has helped her work through her worries and helped her to move on from what has happened.
For offences where the age was recorded, 13 was the most common age of the victim in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but there were 185 offences committed against children aged ten and under, even including babies yet to reach their first birthday.
The number of crimes has doubled in the last four years since police began recording whether an offence had an internet element with a cyber flag, up from 4,042 in 2015/16.
The NSPCC fears that the figures may not reveal the true extent of the problem due to potential under-recording of the role of online in these crimes and wide logging variation across forces. It also comes on top of other online harms against children recorded by police such as indecent image offences.
The NSPCC has led the charge on this for the past two years with its Wild West Web campaign.
Peter Wanless, NSPCC CEO, said: “Behind each offence is a child suffering at the hands of sex offenders and, worryingly, we know these figures are the tip of the iceberg.
“Far too many children are drowning in a sea of online threats so it’s now time for the next Prime Minister, whoever he may be, to cast out the life jacket.
“He must hold his nerve and introduce an independent regulator to protect children from the risks of abuse and harmful content.”