2021 was the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has revealed.
The organisation, which finds and removes abuse content from the internet, is calling for more support for parents to help spot online dangers.
Some 361,000 reports of suspected criminal material were investigated in 2021 – more than the organisation dealt with in its entire first 15 years of existence between 1996 and 2011.
The IWF said Covid-19 lockdowns had an impact on the figures, with more people, particularly schoolchildren, spending more time online and as a result may have been more vulnerable to cybercriminals.
In its research, the online safety group said it had seen a “three-fold” increase in self-generated imagery showing seven to 10-year-olds as they were increasingly targeted and groomed by internet predators “on an industrial scale”.
It said that self-generated material is often made using webcams in a child’s own bedroom and then shared online.
IWF chief executive, Susie Hargreaves, said it was vital parents were given more help to enable them to better spot and understand danger online and ultimately protect their children.
“Children are being targeted, approached, groomed and abused by criminals on an industrial scale,” she said.
“So often, this sexual abuse is happening in children’s bedrooms in family homes, with parents being wholly unaware of what is being done to their children by strangers with an internet connection.
“Devices can be an open door into your home, and children can be especially vulnerable to being drawn into these predators’ traps.
“We know that if parents have one good conversation with their children it can make all the difference, and could be what stops a lifetime of hurt as a result of this grooming.
“Parents need to be supported in knowing how to broach the topic with their children, and to give them the confidence to call out inappropriate behaviour when they see it.
“We’re pleased to see the government stepping in to help educate parents, and provide them with ways they can help protect children from this growing problem.”
On Friday, the government is set to launch a new campaign and website called Stop Abuse Together, which will offer guidance to parents on how to spot signs of sexual abuse and help on how to keep them safe.
Responding to the figures, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, said: “The internet is a vital resource for children to learn and socialise with their peers, but this shocking data shows the unacceptable risks that children can face online.
“Our National Cyber Strategy aims to make the UK the safest place to live and work online; strengthening laws and working across Government, law enforcement and internet providers to fight malicious online activity.
“With the new Stop Abuse Together campaign, we will help empower millions of parents to spot the potential signs of child sexual abuse and take action to keep their children safe."
NSPCC advice on how to keep children safe online:
Talk, Explore, Agree and Manage online safety with your child - work together as a family to help keep your kids safe online.
Be flexible with the normal rules, such as how long your child is spending online, as we're all going online much more during lockdown - but make sure you talk to your child about any new rules and remind them they can talk to you about anything they see or do online.
Talk to them about who they're talking to.
Get familiar with video chatting and livestreaming.
Take online safety offline.
Get to know gaming - before you let your child use a new game, agree some rules around who they can play with and when.
Think about age and content ratings.