The number of crimes involving online grooming has risen by 70% in three years to an all time high, a leading children’s charity has warned.
The NSPCC has reported that Snapchat and Instagram are the most common online tool used by groomers as offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps and platforms popular with children.
One 15-year-old girl told a Childline counsellor: “I’ve been chatting with this guy who’s like twice my age. This all started on Instagram but lately our chats have been on WhatsApp. He seemed really nice to begin with, but then he started making me do these things to ‘prove my trust to him’, like doing video chats with my chest exposed.”
The NSPCC reports that Freedom of information responses from 42 police forces in England and Wales revealed:
• There were 5,441 Sexual Communication with a Child offences recorded between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase of around 70% from recorded crimes in 2017/18
• There was also an annual increase of 9% when comparing data provided by the same 42 police forces from 2019/20, making the number of crimes recorded last year a record high
• Almost half of the offences used Facebook owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger
• Instagram was the most common site used, flagged by police in 32% of instances where the platform was known last year
• Snapchat was used in over a quarter of offences, meaning the big four were used in 74% of instances where platform was known.
However, the NSPCC warns that the figures are likely to be an under-estimation of the true scale of online grooming. There was a decline in the removal of abuse material online during the pandemic as a result of two tech failures at Facebook in the last six months of 2020 Facebook. As a result, last year’s figures do not give a full understanding of the impact of the pandemic on children’s safety online.
With around half of recorded offences happening on Facebook’s platforms, the NSPCC is urging Facebook to invest in technology to ensure plans for end-to-end encryption will not stop them from identifying and protecting against abuse.
“Facebook should proceed only when they can prove child protection tools won’t be compromised by encryption. The Online Safety Bill must hold named-mangers personally liable for design choices that put children at risk. We’ve been calling for Duty of Care regulation of social media since 2017 and have been at the forefront of campaigning for the Online Safety Bill with our Wild West Web campaign,” the charity concluded.