Record high number of recorded grooming crimes lead to calls for stronger online safety legislation
Online grooming crimes recorded by police jumped by around 70% in the last three years reaching an all-time high in 2021. Offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps and platforms popular with children – with Snapchat and Instagram the most common tools used by groomers. Government must respond to these figures and ensure the ambition of the Online Safety Bill matches the scale of the biggest ever online child abuse threat.
Freedom of information responses from 42 police forces in England and Wales found:
- there were 5,441 Sexual Communication with a Child offences recorded between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase of around 70% from recorded crimes in 2017/18
- when comparing data provided by the same 42 police forces from 2019/20, there was also an annual increase of 9% – making the number of crimes recorded last year a record high
- Almost half of the offences used Facebook owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger
- Instagram was the most common site used, flagged by police in 32% of instances where the platform was known last year
- Snapchat was used in over a quarter of offences, meaning the big four were used in 74% of instances where platform was known
True scale of grooming likely to be higher as Facebook tech failures saw drop in removal of abuse material during pandemic
The general belief is that last year’s figures don’t give a full understanding of the impact of the pandemic on children’s safety online. In the last six months of 2020 Facebook removed less than half the child abuse content it had done previously, due to two technology failures. With around half of recorded offences happening on Facebook’s platforms, continued pressure has been put on the company to invest in technology to ensure plans for end-to-end encryption will not stop them from identifying and protecting against abuse.
Facebook should proceed only when they can prove child protection tools won’t be compromised by encryption. The Online Safety Bill must hold named-mangers personally liable for design choices that put children at risk.
There has been calls for Duty of Care regulation of social media since 2017. The NSPCC have been at the forefront of campaigning for the Online Safety Bill with the Wild West Web campaign.
Protecting children and young people from online abuse
Online abuse is any type of abuse that happens on the internet, facilitated through technology like computers, tablets, mobile phones and other internet-enabled devices. It can happen anywhere online that allows digital communication, such as:
- social networks
- text messages and messaging apps
- email and private messaging
- online chats
- comments on live streaming sites
- voice chat in games.
Young people can be revictimised (experience further abuse) when abusive content is recorded, uploaded or shared by others online. This can happen if the original abuse happened online or offline. Young people may experience several types of abuse online:
- emotional abuse (this includes emotional blackmail, for example pressuring children and young people to comply with sexual requests via technology)
- sexting (pressure or coercion to create sexual images)
- sexual abuse
- sexual exploitation.
Young people can also be groomed online: perpetrators may use online platforms to build a trusting relationship with the YP in order to abuse them. This abuse may happen online or the perpetrator may arrange to meet the YP in person with the intention of abusing them.