82 per cent rise in online grooming crimes against children in past five years

Almost 34,000 online grooming crimes against children were recorded by police in the past six years, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC.

Aug 15, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Picture: IWF

The children’s charity said in 2022/23 alone, 6,350 sexual communication with a child offences were recorded – an 82 per cent increase since 2017/18 when this offence came into force.

It is now urging MPs and technology companies to back the Online Safety Bill following its latest research on the scale of online grooming.

“MPs and Lords are going to make the final decisions on the Online Safety Bill next month. We are highlighting these figures to show the true scale of child sexual abuse on social media,” said the NSPCC.

The children’s charity sent Freedom of Information requests to all UK police forces asking for data on recorded offences of sexual communication with a child offences since the offence was introduced in 2017.

The figures published on Tuesday (August 15) show one in four online grooming crimes – more than 5,500 offences – in the past five years were against primary school children, with under-12s being affected by a quarter of cases

Where the gender was known, 83 per cent of online grooming offences were against girls.

With 73 per cent of crimes involving Snapchat and Meta, the NSPCC is urging technology companies to accept regulation and “prioritise children’s safety”.

It found 150 different apps, games and websites were used to groom children online.

More than a quarter (26 per cent) of online grooming offences against children took place on Snapchat, while almost half (47 per cent) took place on Meta-owned products such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

“The number of offences and children affected by online sexual abuse is likely to be a lot higher than what’s currently known to the police,” said the NSPCC.

“It’s vital that politicians on all sides support the Online Safety Bill in its final stages, and pass this Bill that will help protect children.”

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive said: “Today’s research highlights the sheer scale of child abuse happening on social media and the human cost of fundamentally unsafe products.

“The number of offences must serve as a reminder of why the Online Safety Bill is so important and why the ground-breaking protections it will give children are desperately needed.

“We’re pleased the Government has listened and strengthened the legislation so companies must tackle how their sites contribute to child sexual abuse in a tough but proportionate way, including in private messaging.

“It’s now up to tech firms, including those highlighted by these stark figures today, to make sure their current sites and future services do not put children at unacceptable risk of abuse.”

The Online Safety Bill will mean technology companies have a legal duty of care for children and young people who use their products. They must assess their products for the risk of child abuse and put means in place to protect children.

It will give Ofcom powers to address significant abuse taking place in private messaging and will require technology companies to put safeguards in place to identify and disrupt abuse in end-to-end encrypted environments.

“These measures are vital to effectively protect children from online sexual abuse, and our recent YouGov poll shows more than 73 per cent of voters support this legislation,” said the NSPCC.

Senior technology bosses will be held criminally liable for significant failures that put children at risk of sexual abuse and other harm.

Companies will also have to crack down on so-called ‘breadcrumbing’ and ‘tribute pages’ that allow abusers to identify and form networks with each other to facilitate child sexual abuse.

Breadcrumbing is where abusers use phrases, keywords, or other hints that signpost to illegal content, while tribute pages are fake social media accounts made by abusers, of children who have experienced sexual abuse.

“We are still waiting for assurance that the Online Safety Bill will effectively regulate artificial intelligence and immersive technology, and demand an online child safety advocacy body specifically to speak with and for children as part of the regulation,” said the NSPCC. “This will help spot emerging risks and fight for the interests and safety of children before abuse occurs.”

Rebecca Sheriff, a partner at law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the “shocking figures” show the scale of child abuse happening online and the importance of the Online Safety Bill.

“The NSPCC has commented that tech firms and MPs must support the Bill in light of these figures,” said Ms Sheriff.

“Having faced repeated delays and amendments, the long-awaited Online Safety Bill is expected to become law in the autumn as Parliament are finally due to finish debating in the coming weeks.

“If passed, the law will mean that tech companies must comply with tougher duties to protect young users on social medial platforms, which is vital to ensuring their safety from abuse online.”

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