SOCIAL media giants such as Instagram have fuelled a 70 per cent rise in online grooming of children, according to a NSPCC report.
The UK charity is calling on the Government to strengthen regulations and prosecute tech bosses if they put kids in danger.
Social media giants such as Instagram have fuelled a 70 per cent rise in online grooming of children[/caption]
New figures showed police forces recorded 5,441 crimes of sexual communications with a child in the year to March 2021.
That’s a rise of 69 per cent since 2018, when the offence was introduced following a campaign by the NSPCC.
The charity said design flaws on social media platforms are being exploited by offenders, enabling younger users to be targeted.
It added that the Government’s draft Online Safety Bill – introducing regulation to the sector – needs to go further in order to match the scale of the issue.
Figures were compiled by the NSPCC from Freedom of Information requests to 42 police forces across England and Wales.
They showed a nine per cent increase in recorded online grooming offences over the past year.
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Facebook-owned apps, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, were used in almost half of the offences where the means of communication was known over the last 12 months.
Instagram was the most commonly used by offenders.
Snapchat was also named in more than a quarter of cases where the communication form was known.
In response to the findings, the NSPCC has called on the Government to take more robust action to combat the rise of online grooming.
The charity urged tech firms such as Facebook to invest in technology that would still allow the company to identify and disrupt such activities even if all its platforms begin using end-to-end encryption.
NSPCC chiefs also warned that it believes the most recent figures do not provide a full understanding of the scale of the issue during the pandemic.
The charity cited Facebook’s admission that it had missed some child abuse content in the second half of 2020 because of technical issues – although it is now working to remove any content previously missed.
“Year after year tech firms’ failings result in more children being groomed and record levels of sexual abuse,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC.
“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.”
The NSPCC said it has been encouraged by the recent wave of new safety features introduced on a number of platforms, including TikTok and Instagram.
However, it warned that the firms are still playing catch-up on the issue because of years of poorly designed systems.
The draft Online Safety Bill is due to be scrutinised by a joint committee of MPs and peers from September.
The charity said this is a critical opportunity to ensure the proposed legislation provides solutions to comprehensively fix the ways platforms are currently being exploited by abusers.
“This is abhorrent behaviour and we work quickly to find it, remove it and report it to the relevant authorities,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.
“We also block adults from messaging under 18s they’re not connected with and have introduced technology that makes it harder for potentially suspicious accounts to find young people.
“With tens of millions of people in the UK using our apps every day, we are determined to continue developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.”
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
It comes as Facebook faces increased scrutiny over ongoing plans to encrypt communications on the app.
Encryption is mainly a defence against hackers, scrambling messages in transit.
That means only senders and recipients of a text, photo or video can see it – and no one else.
Facebook already uses encryption on WhatsApp, which means hackers – but also law enforcement – can’t see what’s being sent.
And the firm recently encrypted video calls on Facebook Messenger.
The company is working on encrypted texts on Messenger and Instagram DMs.
But child safety experts have repeatedly warned that encryption will make it harder to root out paedophiles on Facebook platforms.
Facebook-owned apps such as Instagram were used in almost half of the offences[/caption]
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