The NSPCC has called on the government to prioritise young people’s online safety after figures revealed police forces in the UK record an average of 22 cyber-related sex crimes against children every day.
According to figures gathered by the children’s charity from 40 forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the number of sexual offences against under-18s logged by police as having an online element doubled in four years to more than 8,000 in 2018 and 2019.
A string of freedom of information requests has revealed that although the most common age of the victim was 13, 185 offences involved children aged 10 and under, including babies. The crimes include online grooming, sexual communication with a child, and rape.
A girl as young as 13 years old told an NSPCC helpline that she had become involved in an online relationship with someone she met on Instagram.
“He convinced me to send pictures of myself which was sexual. Now he has threatened he would share those pictures to my friends unless I send him more,” she explained.
In another scenario, a 14-year-old boy said he was sent a friend request by a woman in her 20s. He said: “Later she video-called me and made me do sexual things. She later showed me a video of what happened and threatened to report me for masturbating if I didn’t talk to her”.
“I feel so ashamed about what has happened and I’m too scared to tell anyone. I’ve blocked them but I feel so violated and scared. My end of the year exams starts tomorrow, and I am struggling to cope with everything right now”.
Four years ago, police services began marking sexual offences with a ‘cyber-flag’ whenever a crime was conducted on, or related to, the internet. In 2015 and 2016, there were more than 4,000 recorded offences. However, in data shows this number has more than doubled to 8,244 between 2018 and 2019.
These figures represent recorded instances of child sex offences online, and may not show the true extent of the problem because some police forces may under-record the role of the internet, the charity said. The NSPCC findings highlight that there was a wide variation in the number of offences cyber-flagged between forces across the country. Although some forces logged hundreds of crimes, others recorded fewer than 20.
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Speaking before the charity’s two-day annual conference in London, NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, stated: “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 lifejacket. He must hold his nerve and introduce an independent regulator to protect children from the risks of abuse and harmful content.”
The NSPCC conference aims to focus on the challenges of growing up online and will include sessions on keeping children safe on the internet. These sessions will include topics such as an “Interpol crime lab”, the dark web and how young people use the internet to form relationships.
At present, the government is currently consulting on an online harms white paper, which outlines new laws to crack down on internet companies. Under consideration is the proposal of the introduction of an independent regulator to enforce a legal duty of care on technology companies to keep users safe on their platforms.