Lonely, unhappy children who rely on social media are more exposed to online grooming, the NSPCC has warned.
The charity’s data has revealed that abusers will often target children who have expressed vulnerability online, by sharing thoughts and feelings in social media posts and livestreams, which many children are likely to be doing now.
Andy Burrows, NSPCC Head of Child Safety Online Policy, said: “Through this survey we heard the voices of lonely, vulnerable children and they told us how they are at greater risk of online abuse.
“What is particularly concerning now is that many more young people are likely to be understandably feeling isolated and anxious during this lockdown and, like everyone, are increasingly using social media to interact with friends and family.
“The coronavirus pandemic has brewed the perfect storm for abusers to exploit existing platform weakness and groom children. Now more than ever tech firms must protect our young people,” he added.
The survey of 2,000 young people aged between 11 and 17-years-old found that:
- 4% had sent, received or been asked to send sexual messages to an adult
- For children who felt lonely, unhappy, were extroverted and who rely on social media, this figure more than doubled to 9%
- 9% of respondents had sent, received or been asked to send sexual messages to another young person
- For children displaying vulnerable characteristics, this more than doubled to 20%.
The charity warns that self-generated images account for a growing proportion of child abuse images, whether these are shared consensually or are the result of peer-to-peer grooming. However, once an image is shared, the sender loses control of how it is used and it can lead to bullying, blackmail, online grooming and abuse.
Furthermore, counselling sessions with Childline have revealed young people are feeling lonely and anxious during lockdown and children are spending more time online to stay in touch with friends since schools have closed.
In addition, tech firms are struggling to moderate content with fewer staff available to identify and disrupt child abuse on their sites. Meanwhile Europol has seen a surge in attempts by offenders to contact young people on social media.
The NSPCC said that the threat of online grooming identified by this research underlines the urgent need for government to press ahead with an Online Harms Bill, which would place a legal Duty of Care on tech firms to tackle abuse.
It is calling for people to email their MP and ask them to support the Online Harms Bill.