The number of grooming crimes in Scotland has risen by 80% in the last five years to the highest on record, according to newly obtained figures.
Police Scotland data released by the children’s charity NSPCC Scotland found that 685 offences of communicating indecently with a child were recorded between April 2020 and March 2021.
It marks an 80% jump from the 381 offences recorded in 2015/16 – and a 5% increase on the 2019/20 figure of 651.
There were 462 offences in 2016/17, 429 in 2017/18 and 581 in 2018/19, making 2020/21’s figures the highest on record.
One 15-year-old girl who contacted the charity’s Childline counsellors told them: “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 data also showed that offences against children under the age of 13 were up 11% from 334 to 370 between 2019/20 and 2020/21.
Despite this, the charity is continuing to call on social media companies and the UK Government to do more.
Joanne Smith, NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager, said: “The failings of tech firms are resulting in record numbers of children being groomed and sexually abused online.
“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the UK Government must make child protection a priority in legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.
“Legislation will only be successful if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “Keeping children safe is one of our highest priorities and the strongest measures contained in the Online Safety Bill are designed to protect children.
“If social media companies do not properly assess or take action against the risks their sites pose to children, they will face heavy fines or have their sites blocked.
“The Bill will further make tech companies accountable to an independent regulator.
“We are clear that companies must continue to take responsibility for stopping the intolerable level of harmful material on their platforms and embed public safety in their system designs, which is why the Bill will also compel them to consider the risks associated with all elements of their services and take robust action to keep their users safe.”
A Facebook spokesman said: “This is abhorrent behaviour and we work quickly to find it, remove it and report it to the relevant authorities.
“We also block adults from messaging under-18s they’re not connected with and have introduced technology that makes it harder for potentially suspicious accounts to find young people.
“With tens of millions of people in the UK using our apps every day, we are determined to continue developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.”
Detective superintendent Martin MacLean, head of child protection for Police Scotland, said: “Police Scotland is committed to tackling child abuse and exploitation in all its forms both on and offline.
“Our lives have moved increasingly online and this has only accelerated during the pandemic, with assessments widely acknowledging a significant increase in the threat and potential harm from online predators.
“Online is increasingly becoming the front line for policing. Over the past 12 months we have increased our enforcement across Scotland targeting online predators and, as a result, 735 children have been protected since September 2020 and 440 individuals arrested.
“We have invested in significant preventative work with our online grooming, perpetrator focused, #GetHelpOrGetCaught campaign with Stop It Now! Scotland and worked to support the campaigns of other valued partners such as NSPCC and Child Protection Committees Scotland.
“We recognise more needs to be done and our Cyber Strategy will enable us to continue to build the capacity and capability to meet the ever increasing online demand and prevent these horrific crimes.
“There is an absolute need for internet service providers to design out the opportunities for online child abuse and exploitation to prevent children being abused and law enforcement having to investigate once the damage is done.
“It’s up to all of us to keep children safe and build safer online communities.”