Figures obtained by NSPCC Northern Ireland reveal that online grooming crimes recorded by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) jumped by 139% in the last three years to an all-time high.
NSPCC campaigning saw the offence of sexual communication with a child introduced in Northern Ireland in February 2016. Since its introduction the PSNI has recorded 610 such offences.
Other information obtained from the PSNI revealed:
- There were 196 Sexual Communication with a Child offences recorded between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase of 139 % from 2017/18.
- Of the 196 offences in 2020/21, 78% were known to be female with the youngest victim only five years old.
- There has been a year on year increase since first recording the data in 2016/17 after the change in the law.
Many offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps popular with children, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, the child protection charity has warned.
A 15-year-old girl told one of the NSPCC 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.”*
NSPCC Northern Ireland is calling on the Executive to prioritise child online safety by funding and fully implementing the Online Safety Strategy and Action Plan without delay, taking timely and meaningful action to fully protect children from the biggest ever online child abuse threat.
The charity is also calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to work closely with the UK Government to step up the ambition of the Online Harms Bill to ensure that its proposals comprehensively tackle an online abuse threat that is greater than ever before. It 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.
Natalie Whelehan, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for NSPCC Northern Ireland, said: “Police-recorded offence statistics do not reflect the total number of sexual offences being committed against children, however they do provide an important part of the picture. They also help us to understand the sheer scale of the problem that the police are trying to tackle.
“We are seeing, year after year, that the failings of tech firms are resulting in more children being groomed and record levels of reported online grooming.
“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the Government must put child protection front and centre of its response to tackling online abuse by funding and fully implementing the Online Safety Strategy and Action plan in Northern Ireland and working closely with the UK Government to ensure the Online Safety Bill is sufficiently robust enough to prevent children suffering online abuse.
“Child safety must be the yardstick against which the actions of our Government is judged and robust measures are needed now to keep children truly safe today and in the future.”
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.
The charity is also encouraging any young people who may worried that nude pictures and videos may end up online to report the material via the charity’s ‘Report remove’ function on their Childline website, to help prevent it from being uploaded in the future. A world-first, the tool allows young people to flag images and videos with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) charity via the before they have appeared online.