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Sexual grooming offences against children double

Sexual grooming offences against children double

Published by Emma Carton at 9:18am 11th September 2019. (Updated at 9:42am 11th September 2019)

Sexual grooming crimes against children in Cornwall and Devon have almost doubled.

Our police force recorded 109 online offences in the year to April 2019, up from 58 the year before.

The NSPCC claims many are being targeted on social media sites and says bosses need to do more to protect youngsters.

Freya* was 12 and staying at a friend's house when a stranger bombarded her Instagram account with sexual messages and videos. 

Mum Pippa* told the NSPCC she felt sick when her daughter showed her the messages.

"She was quiet and seemed on edge when she came home the next day. I noticed her shaking and knew there was something wrong so encouraged her to tell me what the problem was. 

"When she showed me the messages, I just felt sick. It was such a violation and he was so persistent. He knew she was 12, but he kept bombarding her with texts and explicit videos and images. 

"Freya didn't even understand what she was looking at. There were pages and pages of messages, he just didn't give up.

"Our children should be safe in their bedrooms, but they're not. They should be safe from messages from strangers if their accounts are on private, but they're not".

Mum Pippa

*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the victim and her mother*

What do the figures show?

Sexual communication with a child became an offence in April 2017, after a campaign from the NSPCC.

4,373 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded in England and Wales in the year to April 2019.

That is compared to 3,217 in the previous year.

The data, collected through a Freedom of Information request to police forces, shows one in five victims was aged 11-years-old of younger.

In Cornwall and Devon, police recorded 109 offences of sexual communication with a child in the year to April 2019.

That is up from 58 the previous year.

What are the signs of online grooming?

The NSPCC says it can be difficult to tell if a child is being groomed - the signs are not always obvious and may be hidden. 

Older children might behave in a way that seems to be "normal" teenage behaviour, masking underlying problems.

Some of the signs you might see include:

  • Being very secretive about how they're spending their time, including when online
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Having money or new things like clothes and mobile phones that they can't or won't explain
  • Underage drinking or drug taking
  • Spending more or less time online or on their devices
  • Being upset, withdrawn or distressed
  • Sexualised behaviour, language or an understanding of sex that's not appropriate for their age
  • Spending more time away from home or going missing for periods of time.

The NSPCC says a child is unlikely to know they have been groomed. They might be worried or confused and less likely to speak to an adult they trust.

"The best thing the parents can do is talk to their child about their online lives.

"What is it that they like to do? What sites do they go on the most? Who are their friends online?

"The advice is to really have that conversation and to make it an everyday conversation".

Martha Kirby, NSPCC

You can read more advice from the NSPCC here, including how to have those difficult conversation with your children.

What action needs to be taken?

The NSPCC says in the last two years, Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) and Snapchat were used in more than 70% of the instances where police recorded and provided the communication method.

Instagram was used in more than a quarter of them.

The Government has indicated it will publish a draft Online Harms Bill early next year, following the NSPCC's Wild West Web campaign.  

The proposals would introduce independent regulation of social networks, with tough sanctions if they fail to keep children safe on their platforms.  

The NSPCC believes it is now crucial that Boris Johnson's Government makes a public commitment to draw up these Online Harms laws and implement robust regulation for tech firms to force them to protect children as a matter of urgency.

The NSPCC's Wild West Web campaign is calling for social media regulation to require platforms to:

1) Take proactive action to identify and prevent grooming on their sites by:

  • Using Artificial Intelligence to detect suspicious behaviour
  • Sharing data with other platforms to better understand the methods offenders use and flag suspicious accounts
  • Turning off friend suggestion algorithms for children and young people, as they make it easier for groomers to identify and target children 

2) Design young people's accounts with the highest privacy settings, such as geo-locators off by default, contact details being private and unsearchable and live-streaming limited to contacts only. 

"It's now clearer than ever that Government has no time to lose in getting tough on these tech firms.

"Despite the huge amount of pressure that social networks have come under to put basic protections in place, children are being groomed and abused on their platforms every single day.  

"These figures are yet more evidence that social networks simply won't act unless they are forced to by law. 

"The Government needs to stand firm and bring in regulation without delay".

NSPCC Chief Executive, Peter Wanless

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