Children at risk of 'unprecedented' rise in online grooming

A 'tsunami' of children are being groomed online as the government moves to hand regulator Ofcom more power to target companies who do not clamp down on abuse.

Online child grooming at ‘unprecedented’ levels as Police Scotland deal with ‘tsunami’ of cases iStock
The pandemic helped exacerbate children's exposure to predatory online behaviour.

A children’s charity has warned authorities are dealing with a “tsunami” of online child abuse cases amid a rise in grooming crimes exacerbated by the Covid shutdown.

Police Scotland recorded almost 3,000 instances of youngsters being targeted by predatory individuals online in the past five years.

A report by the NSPCC also found cases involving those under the age of 13 rose by more than 60% in the same time period.

Charity bosses said the rise in reports could be at least partially linked to an increased level of online activity as thousands of children were schooled remotely during the global pandemic.

It comes as the UK Government prepares to introduce an amendment to the Online Safety Bill, which would give Ofcom more power as the regulator to demand platforms take more responsibility to halt the spread of illegal material online.

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

“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.”

Freedom of information data obtained by the charity revealed that in 2021/22 there were 636 offences of ‘communicating indecently with a child,’ compared with 429 in 2017/18 – a 48% rise.

For victims under the age of 13, there was a steeper increase with 369 in 2021/22 and 226 in 2017/18.

One 15-year-old girl, speaking to Childline on a condition of anonymity, told how an online chat with a man “twice her age” quickly escalated.

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She said: “It 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.”

Sir Peter added: “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.”