Data from the NSPCC has revealed that online grooming crimes reached a record high last year, as new online safety laws have repeatedly stalled.
The national children’s charity said that data from 42 police forces in the UK showed that 6,350 offences related to sexual communication with a child were recorded last year, representing a record high.
The offence of Sexual Communication with a Child first came into force in 2017-18. In the five years since, police forces have seen the number of these crimes increase by 82%.
In total, 34,000 online grooming crimes have been recorded by UK police forces since the offence was introduced and the NSPCC first started campaigning for tighter controls on online safety in 2017.
Police data, gathered by the NSPCC following a Freedom of Information Request (FOIR), reveals that 5,500 offences were carried out against primary school-age children during this time, meaning that 1 in 4 of the 21,000 known victims during the last 6 years were under 12 years old at the time of the offence. Where the gender was known, 83% of online grooming cases recorded were against young girls.
Sadly, the number of cases of online sexual abuse is likely to be much higher than what is currently known to police. The NSPCC says this highlights the urgent need for “politicians on all sides [to] support the Online Safety Bill in its final stages, and pass this Bill that will help protect children.”
New measures to combat online grooming criticised
However, the Online Safety Bill has faced repeated delays and amendments.
Currently, it faces a backlash from tech companies over new rules that state they should be able to access the content of private messages if there is a concern for child safety.
Many popular messaging apps offer an encrypted online messaging service, which means that only the sender and recipient can view the content of the message.
Tech firms argue that this privacy function is available to everybody and can offer extra protection to many who need it, such as victims of domestic abuse, journalists and political activists. They are reluctant to build in a ‘backdoor’, saying this would make their services less secure for all users.
Some companies have threatened to leave the UK altogether rather than comply with this new rule.
Kate Robertson is a Senior Research Associate at Citizen Lab, which is an organisation that studies security on the internet. Speaking to the BBC this week, she said that “we shouldn’t be drilling more holes in internet safety,” and argued that encryption “is an important source of safety for vulnerable individuals and it’s also an important safety net for privacy itself.”
Encrypted messages offer a ‘smokescreen’ for online grooming
However, the Senior Policy Officer at the NSPCC, Rani Govender, disagreed that there had to be “a trade-off between safety and privacy,” saying it was rather “about investing in those technical solutions which we know are out there, that can deliver for the privacy and safety of all users on these services.”
The NSPCC also wants to ensure that the new legislation will regulate new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) in order to keep children safe.
This call was supported by the Chief Executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, Susie Hargreaves, who said robust safety measures must be introduced, because:
“Without them, end-to-end encryption will be a smokescreen for abusers, helping them hide what they’re doing, and enabling them to continue to hurt children and destroy young lives.”
The data obtained by the NSPCC shows that 150 different apps, games and websites were used to groom children online.
Where the method of communication was identified, more than a quarter (26%) of online grooming offences against children took place on Snapchat, while almost half (47%) took place on the Meta-owned platforms Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp.
The NSPCC provides online safety advice and guidance on its website.
Safeguarding children and young people
First Response Training (FRT) is a leading national training provider delivering courses in subjects such as health and safety, first aid, fire safety, manual handling, food hygiene, mental health, health and social care, safeguarding and more.
A trainer from FRT says:
“Safeguarding children means protecting them off and online. It’s so important that we are mindful of the harms they could be exposed to online and that there are mechanisms in place to protect them, and to offer them help and support when they need it most.
“It’s vital that anyone who works with children and young people is aware of their responsibility for safeguarding children and that they can recognise the signs that indicate a child may be experiencing abuse, and know the correct action to take in response.”
For more information on the training that FRT can provide, please call them today on freephone 0800 310 2300 or send an e-mail to email@example.com.