United Kingdom

Grooming offences up 80 per cent as criminals exploit apps popular with children

CHILD grooming offences in Scotland have increased by 80% in the last five years, but a charity has warned the true scale is likely to be higher.

The NSPCC Scotland said offenders are exploiting “risky” design features on apps which are popular with children and called on UK Government Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to strengthen the draft Online Safety Bill to ensure it responds to the rising threat.

Data given to the charity by Police Scotland revealed that between April last year and March this year, there were 685 offences of communicating indecently with a child – an increase of 80% from 381 in 2015-16.

There was also a rise of 5% from 2019-20 – making the number of crimes recorded in the last year a record high for offences against children under the age of 13. Between 2019 and 2021 the number of recorded crimes rose by 11%, from 334 to 370.

One 15-year-old girl told an NSPCC Childline counsellor: “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.”

However, the NSPCC said the true scale of grooming was likely to be higher because Facebook technical failures saw a drop in the removal of abuse material during the pandemic.

It said in the last six months of 2020 Facebook removed less than half of the child abuse content it had previously, due to two tech failures.

The charity said tech firms failed to adequately respond to the increased risk children faced during lockdowns because of historic inaction to design their sites safely for young users.

It welcomed the flurry of safety announcements from companies such as Instagram, Apple and TikTok, but said technology firms were playing catch up in responding to the threat after years of poorly designed sites.

Joanne Smith, NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager, said: “The failings of tech firms are resulting in record numbers of children being groomed and sexually abused online.

“To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the UK Government must make child protection a priority in legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.

“Legislation will only be successful if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”



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