An alarming article in the Daily Mirror (24 August) reveals that online grooming of children has rocketed by almost 70% in the last three years, following a Freedom of Information investigation by the NSPCC.

The article explains –

Information gathered from 42 police forces in England and Wales, showed there was a record 5,441 reports of sexual communication with a child in 2020/21 – up by 69% from 3,217 in 2017/18. Instagram was the app most commonly used by offenders, with police flagging the platform in 32% of cases, while Snapchat was named in more than a quarter of cases. Overall, Facebook-owned apps – including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger – featured in almost half of the offences over the last 12 months.

One 15-year-old girl, who spoke to one of the charity’s Childline counsellors, was cited in the investigation. She said of her online grooming experience: “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 NSPCC said design flaws on social media apps are being exploited by criminals and that firms should invest in technology that allows the company to identify and disrupt child grooming, even if all platforms begin using end-to-end encryption. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was also warned the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill – introducing regulation to the sector – needs to go much further in order to tackle the epidemic of internet child grooming.

Andy Burrows, Head of Child Safety Online Policy for the children’s charity, said: “Year after year tech firms’ failings result in more children being groomed and record levels of sexual abuse.“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the Government must put child protection front and centre of legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse. “Safety must be the yardstick against which the legislation is judged and Ministers’ welcome ambition will only be realised if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.

The charity also warned that it believes the most recent figures do not provide a full understanding of the scale of the issue during the pandemic, citing Facebook’s admission that it had missed some child abuse content in the second half of 2020 because of technical issues – although it is now working to remove any content previously missed.

The NSPCC said it has been encouraged by the recent wave of new safety features introduced on a number of platforms, including TikTok and Instagram, but warned that the firms are still playing catch-up on the issue because of years of poorly designed systems.

The draft Online Safety Bill is due to be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs and peers from September, and the charity said this is a critical opportunity to ensure the proposed legislation provides solutions to comprehensively fix the ways platforms are currently being exploited by abusers.

Child Safety Media regularly posts about the dangers for children and young people when online. The Daily Mirror article reinforces the need to improve their awareness and understanding, and indeed parents and other family members too.

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