Internet grooming levels reach record high sparking calls for stricter online regulation

24 August 2021, 07:31 | Updated: 24 August 2021, 12:14

Numbers have risen sharply in the last three years.
Numbers have risen sharply in the last three years. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Internet grooming levels have reached a record high, sparking calls for stricter online regulation from the children's charity NSPCC.

The number of online grooming crimes recorded by police rose sharply across three years, increasing by 69 per cent since 2018, the charity found.

Figures on recorded offences involving sexual communication with a child were obtained from 42 police forces across England and Wales.

They showed that 5,441 online grooming offences were recorded between April 2020 and March 2020, up from the 3,217 recorded in the same period in 2017-18.

Social media platforms are being exploited by offenders due to design flaws, meaning young users are more vulnerable to being targeted, the NSPCC explained.

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As a result of their findings, the charity has called for the government to go further in order to match the scale of the issue.

A draft of the Online Safety Bill - introducing regulation to the sector - is set to be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs and peers from September, which the NSPCC has said is a critical opportunity to ensure it provides solutions to comprehensively fix the ways platforms are currently being exploited.

It also urged tech firms such as Facebook to invest in technology that would still allow the company to identify and disrupt such activities even if all its platforms begin using end-to-end encryption.

Facebook-owned apps, such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, were used in almost half of the offences where the means of communication was known over the last 12 months, with Instagram the most commonly used.

Snapchat was also named in more than a quarter of cases where the communication form was known.

However, the charity has warned that the latest figures do not show the full picture when it comes to online issues, especially during the pandemic.

It comes as Facebook admitted that it had missed some child abuse content in the second half of 2020 because of technical issues - although it is currently working to remove any content previously missed.

Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, 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."

A Facebook company spokesperson said they were constantly working to "prevent, detect and respond to abuse" on their platforms.

"This is abhorrent behaviour and we work quickly to find it, remove it and report it to the relevant authorities," they said.

"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."