Children in Northern Ireland are being increasingly targeted online by sex offenders – with an average of five cases per week recorded by the PSNI last year. In 2019/20, a total of 265 recorded sexual offences against children were ‘flagged’ by the PSNI as having an online element, representing an increase of over 90 per cent in five years from 139 offences in 2015/16. Figures from the PSNI obtained by NSPCC Northern Ireland reveal that in 2019/2020, there were 2,082 recorded offences against children under 18 years of age. Police across the UK logged more than 10,000 online child sex offences in 12 months for the first time last year. Data obtained by the NSPCC reveals 10,391 crimes were recorded by all 46 forces across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands for 2019/20. UK-wide offences increased by 16% from the previous year where data from police forces is available and includes crimes that had a cyber element such as grooming, sexual assault and rape. That takes the total number of recorded offences in the five years since it became mandatory to record whether a crime involved the internet to more than 37,000. However, this figure is likely to significantly understate the true extent of the problem due to potential under-recording by police forces of the role of the internet and variation in the way forces log these crimes. While the Freedom of Information data does not include the lockdown period, risks to children online increased and Childline counselling sessions on grooming went up. The charity says this highlights the urgent need for the UK Government to push forward with the Online Harms Bill, which would place a legal Duty of Care on tech firms to protect children, enforced by an independent regulator. The NSPCC is calling on the UK Government to publish its final plans before the end of the year, and get an Online Harms Bill on the statute book by the end of 2021.
These figures suggest that online abuse was already rising before lockdown, and the risks to children appear to have spiked significantly since.
“It is now almost 17 months since the UK Government’s original proposals for social media regulation were published and children continue to face preventable harm online," Natalie Whelehan, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at NSPCC Northern Ireland, said.
“At the Hidden Harms Summit, the Prime Minister signalled he was determined to act. That’s why he needs to prioritise making progress on a comprehensive Online Harms Bill this Autumn, and pass legislation by the end of 2021, that sees tech firms held criminally and financially accountable if they put children at risk.”
One mother who spoke to the NSPCC said her daughter was groomed and sexually exploited through an online game called Movie Star Planet from when she was six-years-old.
The abuser gained her trust then threatened her into sending him and other adults sexually explicit images and committing sexual acts for two years.
“He would threaten to expose her if she didn’t do as she was told, that he would even put her in a “shallow grave” or kill us, her parents," she said.
“As she got older, she is now 14, she began to struggle. Her behaviour changed, she became angry, depressed and would cry without really knowing why.
“She found it incredibly hard to make herself go into school and would ring me in tears, not knowing why she couldn’t go through the door. It was horrible, I felt so helpless when she talked about self-harming and not wanting to go on living.” The NSPCC has been campaigning for a Duty of Care on tech firms since the launch of its Wild West Web campaign in 2018. The Government published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019 but are still yet to produce the final consultation response. At the end of the month, they will set out further proposals explaining what powers the independent regulator needs in order to protect children online.
For confidential support and advice phone the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000