Shocking new data has revealed the number of Sexual Communication with a Child offences last year (2022/23) was nearly double the number seen in 2017/18 when the offence first came into force.
Specifically, 6,350 instances of the offence were recorded last year, bringing the total over the past six years to a striking 34,000, according to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
What’s more, primary school children – less than 12 years of age – were affected by a quarter of these cases.
This has led to renewed calls from the NSPCC for MPs and Lords to back the Online Safety Bill next month.
Social media is a key driver behind these disturbing figures. Indeed, 73% of crimes involved Snapchat and Meta, with the NSPCC urging tech companies to accept regulation and prioritise children’s safety. In total, 150 different apps, games, and websites were used.
“The number of offences and children affected by online sexual abuse is likely to be a lot higher than what’s currently known to the police. It’s vital that politicians on all sides support the Online Safety Bill in its final stages, and pass this Bill that will help protect children,” said the NSPCC.
The Online Safety Bill will mean tech companies have a legal duty of care for children and young people who use their products. They must assess their products for the risk of child abuse and put means in place to protect children.
It will give Ofcom powers to address significant abuse taking place in private messaging and will require tech companies to put safeguards in place to identify and disrupt abuse in end-to-end encrypted environments.
These measures are vital to effectively protect children from online sexual abuse, and a recent YouGov poll shows more than 73% of voters support this legislation. Other measures within the Bill include:
Senior tech bosses will be held criminally liable for significant failures that put children at risk of sexual abuse and other harm.
- Ofcom will produce guidance on tackling Violence Against Women and Girls for companies to follow
- Companies will have to crack down on “breadcrumbing” and “tribute pages”, allow abusers to identify and form networks with each other to facilitate child sexual abuse
- Breadcrumbing is where abusers use phrases, keywords, or other hints that signpost to illegal content
- Tribute pages are fake social media accounts made by abusers, of children who have experienced sexual abuse
- Websites and companies will have to consider how grooming pathways travel across various social media apps and games, and work together to prevent abuse spreading across different platforms
“We are still waiting for assurance that the Online Safety Bill will effectively regulate AI and immersive technology, and demand an online child safety advocacy body specifically to speak with and for children as part of the regulation. This will help spot emerging risks and fight for the interests and safety of children before abuse occurs,” the NSPCC added.
Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive, stated:
“[This] research highlights the sheer scale of child abuse happening on social media and the human cost of fundamentally unsafe products.
The number of offences must serve as a reminder of why the Online Safety Bill is so important and why the ground-breaking protections it will give children are desperately needed.
We’re pleased the government has listened and strengthened the legislation so companies must tackle how their sites contribute to child sexual abuse in a tough but proportionate way, including in private messaging.
It’s now up to tech firms, including those highlighted by these stark figures today, to make sure their current sites and future services do not put children at unacceptable risk of abuse.”