Record high number of recorded grooming crimes lead to calls for stronger online safety legislation

Online grooming crimes recorded by police jumped by around 70% in the last three years reaching an all-time high in 2021.

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Offenders are exploiting risky design features on apps and platforms popular with children - with Snapchat and Instagram the most common tools used by groomers.

Government must respond to these figures and ensure the ambition of the Online Safety Bill matches the scale of the biggest ever online child abuse threat.

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  • there were 5,441 Sexual Communication with a Child offences recorded between April 2020 and March 2021, an increase of around 70% from recorded crimes in 2017/18
  • when comparing data provided by the same 42 police forces from 2019/20, there was also an annual increase of 9% - making the number of crimes recorded last year a record high
  • Almost half of the offences used Facebook owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger
  • Instagram was the most common site used, flagged by police in 32% of instances where the platform was known last year
  • Snapchat was used in over a quarter of offences, meaning the big four were used in 74% of instances where platform was known

True scale of grooming likely to be higher as Facebook tech failures saw drop in removal of abuse material during pandemic

We believe last year’s figures don’t give a full understanding of the impact of the pandemic on children’s safety online.

In the last six months of 2020 Facebook removed less than half the child abuse content it had done previously, due to two technology failures.

With around half of recorded offences happening on Facebook’s platforms, we’re urging the company to invest in technology to ensure plans for end-to-end encryption will not stop them from identifying and protecting against abuse.

Facebook should proceed only when they can prove child protection tools won’t be compromised by encryption. The Online Safety Bill must hold named-mangers personally liable for design choices that put children at risk.

We’ve been calling for Duty of Care regulation of social media since 2017 and have been been at the forefront of campaigning for the Online Safety Bill with our Wild West Web campaign.

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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.*

A 15-year-old girl told one of our Childline counsellors

Online Safety Bill must hold tech companies accountable to protect young users

Tech firms like the big four failed to reduce the risk children faced on their platforms and apps during pandemic lockdowns.

Despite the recent flurry of safety announcements from companies such as Instagram, Apple and TikTok, tech firms are playing catch up in responding to historically poorly designed sites that fail to protect their young users.

We’re calling for Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to step up the ambition of the Government’s Online Safety Bill to ensure proposals tackle an online abuse threat that is greater than ever.

The Draft Online Safety Bill published in May must go further to keep children safe, matching up to the scale and nature of the child abuse happening online. It must address how abuse rapidly spreads across platforms and ensure companies respond effectively to content that enables abuse.

The Bill is due to be scrutinised by a Joint Committee of MPs and Lords from September. Experts say this a crucial opportunity to ensure legislation provides solutions that comprehensively fix the way platforms are exploited by abusers.

Andy Burrows, Head of Child Safety Online Policy at the NSPCC, said:

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Year after year tech firms’ failings result in more children being groomed and record levels of sexual abuse.

To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the Government must put child protection front and centre of legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.

Safety must be the yardstick against which the legislation is judged and Ministers’ welcome ambition will only be realised if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”

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We fixed the Flaw in the Law – but it wasn’t enough

In 2014, it wasn’t illegal for an adult to send a child a sexual message. 50,000 people signed our Flaw in the Law petition calling on government to make online grooming a crime. Government listened and an adult sending sexual messages to children was included as a crime in the Sexual Offences Act of 2015. But social media platforms still don’t have safety measures in place to stop groomers.

Tech companies still need to protect their users

In April 2018 we started a petition asking government to bring in laws to make social media platforms protect young users from sexual abuse online. 

In under a year we had an incredible 46,000 signatures – and government launched the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019. But the proposed bill still hasn’t passed – and children still aren’t safe from online grooming.

We're so close - help us pass the Online Safety Bill

In December 2020, Government announced that a future Online Safety Bill will place a legal duty of care on tech companies to protect young people on their platforms. Their goal is to make the UK the safest place in the world to be a child online.

But the Online Safety Bill still hasn’t been published – and with police recording over 10,000 online child sex offences in 2019/20 alone – tech companies still aren’t doing enough to protect their young users.