The NSPCC has called for action to help vulnerable children
Crimes of communicating a sexual message to a child have risen by 80% in the last five years to an all-time high, Police Scotland figures obtained by the NSPCC reveal.
Offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps popular with children to groom them, the child protection charity has warned.
The NSPCC is calling on the UK Government to respond by ensuring the ambition of the Online Safety Bill matches the scale of the biggest ever online child abuse threat.
The data provided by Police Scotland reveals:
- there were 685 offences of Communicating Indecently with a Child recorded between April 2020 and March 2021
- that’s an increase of 80% from 381 in 2015/16
- there was also an increase of 5% from 2019/20 - making the number of crimes recorded in the last year a record high
- for offences against children under the age of 13, the number of recorded crimes rose by 11%, from 334 to 370, between 2019/20 and 2020/21
A 15-year-old girl told one of the NSPCC's Childline counsellors: “I’ve been chatting with this guy who’s like twice my age. This all started on Instagram but lately our chats have been on WhatsApp. He seemed really nice to begin with, but then he started making me do these things to ‘prove my trust to him’, like doing video chats with my chest exposed.”
The NSPCC believes last year’s figures do not give a full understanding of the impact of the pandemic on children’s safety online.The charity cites that in the last six months of 2020 Facebook removed less than half of the child abuse content it had previously, due to two technology failures.
The charity says tech firms failed to adequately respond to the increased risk children faced during lockdowns because of historic inaction to design their sites safely for young users.
The NSPCC welcomes the recent flurry of safety announcements from companies such as Instagram, Apple and TikTok, but says tech firms are playing catch up in responding to the threat after years of poorly designed sites.
The charity is calling on the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to step up the ambition of the UK Government’s Online Safety Bill to ensure proposals comprehensively tackle an online abuse threat that is greater than ever.
The NSPCC says the Draft Online Safety Bill published in May needs to go much further to keep children safe and ensure it creates a practical response that corresponds to the scale and nature of the child abuse problem.
The bill is due to be scrutinised by a Joint Committee of MPs and Lords from September, which experts say is a crucial opportunity to ensure legislation provides solutions that comprehensively fix the way platforms are exploited by abusers.
The NSPCC wants to see the bill strengthened to address how abuse rapidly spreads across platforms and ensure it responds effectively to content that facilitates abuse.
Joanne Smith, NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager, said: “The failings of tech firms are resulting in record numbers of children being groomed and sexually abused online.
“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the UK Government must make child protection a priority in legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.
“Legislation will only be successful if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”
The NSPCC is also urging Facebook to invest in technology to ensure plans for end-to-end encryption will not prevent the tech firm from identifying and disrupting abuse.
The charity says Facebook should proceed only when it can prove child protection tools will not be compromised and wants tougher measures in the Online Safety Bill to hold named-managers personally liable for design choices that put children at risk.
The NSPCC has been calling for Duty of Care regulation of social media since 2017 and has been at the forefront of campaigning for the Online Safety Bill.