Child abuse image offences recorded by police have more than doubled (110%) in the South West and by two thirds in the UK (66%) in five years, an NSPCC investigation has revealed.
Shockingly, more than 2,700 crimes involving the sharing and possession of indecent images of children took place last year (2021/22) across the region, according to freedom of information data obtained by the children’s charity.
Nationally offences increased to the highest figure on record (30,925), suggesting the heightened risk seen during the pandemic has not gone away.
The NSPCC warns that unregulated social media is fuelling the unprecedented scale of online child sexual abuse and behind every offence could be multiple child victims who are continually revictimised as images are shared.
They said the issue of young people being groomed into sharing images of their own abuse is pervasive and tech bosses are failing to stop their sites being used by offenders to organise, commit and share child sexual abuse.
The charity is calling on Government to give children, including victims of sexual abuse, a powerful voice and expert representation in future regulation by creating a statutory child safety advocate through the Online Safety Bill.
This would ensure that children’s experiences are front and centre of decision making, building safeguarding experience into regulation to prioritise child protection.
It comes as the new research shows Snapchat is the social media site offenders most used to share child abuse images nationally. The app, popular with teens, was used in 43% of instances where platform data was provided by police.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which are all owned by Meta, were used in a third (33%) of instances where a site was flagged.
And for the first-time virtual reality environments and Oculus headsets, used to explore the Metaverse, were found to be involved in recorded child sexual abuse image crimes.
The NSPCC said committing to a statutory child safety advocate is crucial to act as an early warning system to identify emerging child abuse risks and ensure they are on the radar of companies and the regulator Ofcom.
The advocate would reflect the experiences of young people and be a statutory counterbalance the power of the big tech lobby to help drive a corporate culture that focusses on preventing abuse.
Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, said: “These new figures are incredibly alarming but reflect just the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.
“We hear from young people who feel powerless and let down as online sexual abuse risks becoming normalised for a generation of children.
“By creating a child safety advocate that stands up for children and families the Government can ensure the Online Safety Bill systemically prevents abuse.
“It would be inexcusable if in five years’ time we are still playing catch-up to pervasive abuse that has been allowed to proliferate on social media.”