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Online grooming rises by 80% in four years

Online grooming crimes recorded by the police continue to rise and have jumped by more than 80% in four years, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC.

Record levels of online grooming were reached during the pandemic, and have not subsided and have in fact risen, meaning there may be a long-term increase in risk.

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive, said: “Online grooming is taking place at unprecedented levels and only concerted action will turn the tide on this tsunami of preventable abuse.”

Data from 41 UK police forces shows that there has been an 84% rise since 2017/18, taking the total to more than 27,000 offences since 2017.

The figures reveal:

  • There were 6,156 Sexual Communication with a Child offences in 2021/22, an increase on the previous year and almost 120 offences per week on average.
  • Four in five (82%) of grooming cases last year were against girls (where the gender was known).
  • 12 to 15 year old girls made up 39% of all victims, where the age and gender was recorded.

Offenders target children through well-established grooming pathways, such as contacting children on social media and gaming sites and coercing them to produce self-generated child abuse images. Meta-owned platforms were used in 38% of offences where the means of communication was known.

However, Snapchat was used by groomers more than any other platform, in a third of offences where a site was recorded (33%).

Grooming is increasingly becoming a cross-platform problem, with police recording 70 different apps and games involved in grooming crimes in the last 12 months alone. Multiple social media sites were often used in the same offence.

One 15-year-old girl who was groomed on multiple sites told Childline: “I’ve been chatting with this guy online who’s like twice my age. This all started on Instagram but lately all 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. Every time I did these things for him, he would ask for more and I felt like it was too late to back out.

“This whole thing has been slowly destroying me and I’ve been having thoughts of hurting myself.”

The children’s charity says the scale of offences show that the Online Safety Bill needs to go further to protect children online.

The NSPCC has produced a five-point action plan for the Online Safety Bill which aims to strengthen the Bill.

  1. Give the regulator the powers to proactively tackle abuse in private messaging.

Two thirds of child abuse takes place in private messaging, so Ofcom must be given power to proactively require firms to use technology to detect and disrupt grooming and the sharing of child abuse images.

2) Make platforms work together to tackle grooming pathways.

Grooming doesn’t just happen on one site, offenders use well-known grooming pathways to target children and companies should have a clear legal duty to address cross platform harm and cooperate with each other to disrupt grooming.

3) Stop offenders from using social networks to organise abuse.

Offenders legally use social media to form networks, advertise a sexual interest in children and signpost to illegal child abuse content on third party sites. The Online Safety Bill must combat the ways offenders facilitate abuse on social media.

4) Adopt a Violence Against Women and Girls Code of Practice.

The government should commit to a statutory code of practice on violence against women and girls to ensure the Online Safety Bill has a systemic and enforceable focus on online sexual violence.

5) A children’s watchdog that represents children's needs.

The Online Safety Bill can give children a higher standard of protection by creating a statutory watchdog to promote children’s interests, funded by a levy on the tech industry. This user advocacy body would ensure children protection is front and centre of regulation, prevent harm by acting as an early warning system to flag emerging risks and call for swift action.

Peter Wanless said: “The crucial Online Safety Bill is the opportunity to deliver the legislative change we urgently need to address head on these preventable crimes against children

“We strongly welcome the government’s ambition to deliver world-leading legislation. But as it seems increasingly clear that the pandemic has resulted in a long-term increase in the abuse threat, the current proposals must go further now to tackle online sexual violence and prevent avoidable abuse,” he concluded.

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