Pre-lockdown surge in online child sex crimes

Police in the North West have logged 1,742 online child sex offences: an 60 per cent increase in just 12 months.
There has been a marked increase in online sex offences involving childrenThere has been a marked increase in online sex offences involving children
There has been a marked increase in online sex offences involving children

Data obtained by the NSPCC reveals 10,391 crimes were recorded by all 46 forces across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands for 2019/20.

The offences across the UK increased by 16 per cent from the previous year where data from police forces is available and includes crimes that had a cyber element such as grooming, sexual assault and rape.

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That takes the total number of recorded offences in the UK in the five years since it became mandatory to record whether a crime involved the internet to more than 37,000.

In those same five years, forces across the North West logged an increase of 152 per cent from 690 in 2015/16 to 1,742 in 2019/20.

But this figure is likely to understate the true extent of the problem due to potential under-recording by police forces of the role of the internet and variation in the way forces log these crimes.

While the Freedom of Information data does not include the lockdown period, risks to children online increased and Childline counselling sessions on grooming went up. The charity says this highlights the urgent need for the Government to push forward with the Online Harms Bill, which would place a legal Duty of Care on tech firms to protect children, enforced by an independent regulator.

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The NSPCC is calling on the Government to publish its final plans before the end of the year, and get an Online Harms Bill on the statute book by the end of 2021.

Andy Burrows, NSPCC Head of Child Safety Online Policy, said: “These figures suggest that online abuse was already rising before lockdown, and the risks to children appear to have spiked significantly since.”

“It is now almost 17 months since the Government’s original proposals for social media regulation were published and children continue to face preventable harm online.

“At the Hidden Harms Summit, the Prime Minister signalled he was determined to act. That’s why he needs to prioritise making progress on a comprehensive Online Harms Bill this Autumn, and pass legislation by the end of 2021, that sees tech firms held criminally and financially accountable if they put children at risk.”

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Olivia’s* daughter Emma* was groomed and sexually exploited through an online game called Movie Star Planet from when she was six-years-old.

The abuser gained her trust then threatened her into sending him and other adults sexually explicit images and committing sexual acts for two years.

“He would threaten to expose her if she didn’t do as she was told, that he would even put her in a “shallow grave” or kill us, her parents.

“As she got older, she is now 14, she began to struggle. Her behaviour changed, she became angry, depressed and would cry without really knowing why.

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“She found it incredibly hard to make herself go into school and would ring me in tears, not knowing why she couldn’t go through the door. It was horrible, I felt so helpless when she talked about self-harming and not wanting to go on living.”

The NSPCC has been campaigning for a Duty of Care on tech firms since the launch of its Wild West Web campaign in 2018.

The Government published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019 but are still yet to produce the final consultation response.

The charity previously published a set of set of regulatory proposals setting out how social media regulation should work, called Taming the Wild West Web.

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At the end of the month, they will set-out further proposals explaining what powers the independent regulator needs in order to protect children online.

Adults concerned about a child online can contact the NSPCC Helpline confidentially for advice and support on 0808 800 5000 or email [email protected]

*Not their real names.