In 2015-16, sexual offences involving the internet were committed against 272 children aged under 10. Photograph: Alamy
The internet was used to commit an average of eight sexual crimes against children each day in the past year, including rapes, grooming and live streaming of abuse, new figures obtained by the NSPCC reveal.
The data reveals that in England and Wales during 2015-16 more than 3,000 sexual crimes were committed against children in which the internet was used as a gateway to access or abuse them. These included more than 100 rapes, plus cases of inciting children to take part in a sexual act and grooming offences.
In the past year, police forces have for the first time been required by law to add “cyber flags” to sexual offences against under-18s that have involved the internet. The measure was introduced in order for government and the criminal justice system to gain a better understanding of the scale of online abuse of children.
Most victims of the offences reported to police were 13 years old (535 individuals) but 272 children aged under 10 and a one-year-old baby were involved in the crimes that took place.
But it is much worse than that
Of the 44 police forces in England and Wales, 38 responded to the freedom of information request for figures on how many cyber-enabled sexual crimes had been committed against children. The forces that responded recorded 3,186 sex crimes against children in which the internet had played a part.
Some forces, however, said they were not using or did not know about the cyber flag, which was made mandatory by the Home Office at the beginning of April 2015.
The cyber flag also appears to be used by some forces much more than others. Some recorded just a handful of cases, while others have data on hundreds of offences of cyber-enabled sex crimes against children.
The obvious take-away from this is that a lot of police are not using the cyber flag and consequently the numbers revealed here are considerably lower than reality. Home Office needs to make sure that all police are on board with this program.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “These figures confirm our fears that the online world is playing a significant role in the sexual abuse of children in the UK. It’s clear that a large volume of sexual assaults and rapes of children have involved the use of the internet – for example, by grooming victims before abusing them offline, or live-streaming the abuse.
“We know grooming is on the rise because children are increasingly telling our ChildLine service how they are being targeted online. Predatory adults posing as children try to meet them, or blackmail them into meeting up or performing sexual acts on webcams, which obviously terrifies them and can leave some feeling suicidal.”
Wanless said the charity had obtained the data in order to highlight how police were under increasing pressure from the scale of online offences. “We have to ensure they have the resources and training to make them fit for tackling crime in the 21st century,” he said.
The figures were revealed on Tuesday in the NSPCC’s annual How Safe Are Our Children? report.
As the scale of online abuse of children grows, more victims of internet-enabled sex crimes are turning to ChildLine than ever before to report their experiences. In 2014-15, the charity undertook 378 counselling sessions about online grooming – a 42% increase on the previous year’s figure of 266, with 70% of contact from girls.
One 13-year-old girl told the NSPCC: “My friend told me she thinks I’m being groomed but I don’t think that’s true. I’ve met a guy and he’s a lot older than me. He’s always telling me that I’m perfect and that he wishes I was older. More recently he’s been asking me to sleep with him and I feel as if I should because he’s always buying me gifts. I don’t want him to get into trouble, which is why I don’t want to say anything, but I don’t want to sleep with him either. I don’t know what to do.”
Another 13-year-old girl said: “This guy I met online would listen to all my problems and make me feel good about myself. I honestly thought he cared about me, so I did some sexual stuff over camera for him. As soon as I did, he turned really nasty and started threatening me because he wanted me to do and send more. He’s really scaring me so I regret ever talking to him now. I need help, but I’m terrified about telling my parents because they always told me not to talk to strangers online. I’m finding the situation really difficult to cope with, so I’ve started self-harming.”