Sexual grooming crimes soar by a third as paedophiles turn to Instagram

Sexual grooming crimes have soared by a third in a year as paedophiles turn to Instagram to target children as young as 11, the NSPCC has said.

Figures show that in the year to April 2019, there were 4,373 offences recorded of sexual communication with a child – an offence came into force on April 2017 – compared with 3,217 in the previous year.

The data, obtained from 43 police forces across England and Wales under Freedom of Information laws, also revealed that where age was provided, one in five victims were aged just 11 or younger.

Last year, the number of recorded instances of the use of Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was more than double that of the previous year.

In one case, Freya, a 12-year-old whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was staying at a friend’s house when a stranger bombarded her Instagram account with sexual messages and videos.

Her mother told the NSPCC: “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.”

Overall in the last two years, Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) and Snapchat were used in more than 70 per cent of the instances where police recorded the communication method, with Instagram being used in more than a quarter of cases.

The NSPCC is now calling on Boris Johnson’s government to draw up a draft Online Harms Bill, which would introduce independent regulation of social networks, with tough sanctions if they fail to keep children safe on their platforms – as a matter of urgency.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “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.”

He added: “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.”

A government spokesperson said:“Grooming children online is a sickening crime and the government is committed to stamping it out.

“We have taken strong action to tackle this vile abuse, from developing AI tools to identify and block grooming conversations to our Online Harms White Paper, which will place a legal duty of care on social media companies to protect their users.”

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