The number of online grooming crimes against children hit a record high in the last year, police figures show.
A total of 6,350 crimes related to sexual communication with a child were recorded in the year to March 2023, a rise of 82% since the offence was first defined in 2017.
In all, around 34,000 online grooming offences were recorded by UK police forces over the past six years, according to data gathered by NSPCC through freedom of information requests.
Children under 12 made up a quarter of the total number of victims, the charity said.
Girls were targeted in 83% of cases where the gender was known.
Snapchat was used in 26% of instances, while Meta‘s Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were used in 47% of cases where the means of communication was recorded.
In total, 150 different games, apps, and websites were used to target children.
‘He used images to control me’
A 19-year-old woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said she was groomed aged 15 by a man posing as a boy she was speaking to on Yubo, a French social networking app that lets users join live-streamed group videos.
The man typically became angry if she took too long to reply and would not accept it when she ended their conversations on the app.
“He just found me on Instagram and moved to messaging me directly there,” she told the NSPCC.
At his request, she had sent him pictures of herself naked.
“He used the images to control me,” she said. “I wasn’t even allowed to use the toilet without his permission.
“I was afraid to tell anyone because of the photos and his threats. He threatened to share the images of me with friends and family he’d found through my social media if I stopped replying.”
‘Ground-breaking safety bill desperately needed’
Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said the research highlights the scale of child abuse happening on social media.
“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,” he said.
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The regulations proposed in the bill aim to make social media companies and search engines more responsible for content published on their platforms.
After significant delays since it was first submitted in 2019, the bill is due for its final debate in the House of Lords next month.
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However, proposals allowing UK regulators to scan messages have been criticised by the leaders of messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal, who argued they would compromise users’ privacy.
The NSPCC welcomed the strengthening of the legislation relating to private messaging and added: “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.”