Online grooming crimes surge by 70%

The number of online grooming cases recorded by police increased by around 70 per cent in the past three years, reaching an all-time high in 2021.

According to the NSPCC, offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps and platforms popular with children – with Snapchat and Instagram the most common tools used by groomers.

Freedom of information responses from 42 police forces in England and Wales found that there were 5,441 sexual communication with a child offences recorded between April 2020 and March 2021.

When comparing data provided by the same 42 police forces from 2019/2020, there was also an annual increase of 9 per cent.

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 per cent 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 per cent of instances where the platform was known.

The child protection charity has called on the government to respond to the rising numbers. It said that it must ensure the Online Safety Bill matches the scale of the “biggest ever online child abuse threat.”

The organisation also warned that the true scale of grooming is likely to be even higher as Facebook tech failures saw a drop in removal of abuse material during the pandemic.

According to the charity, in the last six months of 2020, Facebook removed less than half of the child abuse content it had done previously due to two technology failures.

It urged Facebook to invest in technology to ensure plans for end-to-end encryption will not stop them from identifying and protecting against abuse.

“Year after year tech firms’ failings result in more children being groomed and record levels of sexual abuse,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC. “To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the Government must put child protection front and centre of legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.”

Burrows added: “Safety must be the yardstick against which the legislation is judged and Ministers’ welcome ambition will only be realised if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”

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