Online dating sites have become the “gateway” for paedophiles targeting young people, a leading child protection charity has warned.
Lancashire’s courts are seeing an increasing number of cases featuring sex offenders who use online dating sites to find their victims, and police figures show 29 children under 16 have been victims of crimes linked to either online dating or dating apps in Lancashire, in the last five years.
A Freedom of Information request shows the number of reports to Lancashire Police of an alleged crime where online dating was named in the log, or a dating app such as Tinder or Grindr was named in the log.
And an undercover investigation has shown how shockingly easy it is for a child to lie about their age and set up a fake account on such sites.
A spokesman for the Child Exploitation Online Protection centre said: “There are many ways in which people engage with each other online and we know that those with a sexual interest in children will seek to exploit tools such as social media for their own ends.
“Information and guidance for children and young people on how to stay safe online and when using social media platforms is needed, as well as information for parents and teachers.”
Organisations like the NSPCC are so concerned they have called for specific lessons in school to warn youngsters of the dangers.
Today a spokesman for the charity said: “Online safety is a major 21st century child protection challenge.
“With more children accessing social media than ever before we are seeing an increase in incidents where offenders use apps and the web as the gateway for their crimes.
“Children should be safe to use the internet without being targeted by sexual predators. That’s why the NSPCC is calling for compulsory online safety lessons in schools to warn them about the dangers of social media.
“We also urge parents to talk to their children about what they share online, and who they share it with.”
Theirs fears aren’t unfounded. One notorious ‘teen dating’ site has been described by critics as a “paedophile playground”.
It has an age limit of just 13 and a simple tick box for schoolchildren if they didn’t want ‘sexting’ from other members.
Within seconds it was easy to identify 44 Lancashire, aged just 13 and 14, who had posted their profiles on the site, along with several other Lancashire children aged 15 to 16.
We have taken the decision not to name the sites in question to protect the young people from Lancashire who have already posted their details on there.
In three days there were 60 messages in the inbox...
“How was school today?
It’s a seemingly innocuous question - but not as innocent as it seems when it is being asked by a stranger in his 40s on a dating app.
Welcome to the seedy world of child dating, a real life horror story happening on a doorstep near you.
Complete strangers can see your child’s picture, find out how many metres away they are, send them lewd pictures, and arrange to meet them - all in a matter of a few clicks.
We went undercover to highlight how easily vulnerable children can be targeted on such sites.
It took a matter of minutes to create a fake email account with a bogus name and age, and use it to set up a fake account as a shy confused teen.
While most sites stipulate a token ‘18 age limit’, it’s ridiculously easy to lie.
In under an hour six men had already made contact, one sending a picture of himself in his underwear.
After three days there were 60 messages in the inbox.
Several of the men were told my age was 14 or 15, and that I had lied to get an account.
Though some immediately said they weren’t interested, several others persisted, even after being told I was at school.
A married man from Coppull told me he was “hungry for some hot teen”.
Within in a minute of me telling him I had lied to get on the site and was just 15, he had sent me a graphic picture of his private parts, and was asking for one of me.
A 30-year-old was also quick to send me a pic of himself in his underwear.
When I told him I was 15 he was cautious but then revealed he had a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy when he was 20.
A 40-year old, calling himself Dad4u, referred to me as ‘baby girl’ and ‘princess’.
On being told I was 14, another man in his 40s said he was “apprehensive at my age but not put off”.
He was happy to discuss what he liked sexually, consider meeting, and later messaged me asking how school had been.
The fact I was at third year in high school did little to deter an 18-year-old user who said he was ‘OK’ with me being 15, and sent me several pictures of his private parts.
A 30-year-old bisexual man was also unfazed by my age, telling me: “I find it fine you naughty little minx”, before describing in graphic detail what he would do to me.
He also revealed he didn’t have much time to see me as he had a girlfriend, but would still love to meet up.
This brief but grim insight highlights just how dangerous the internet can be for impulsive, impressionable youngsters.
It’s perhaps a little heartening that four days into the investigation, a member was concerned enough about my welfare to report me to the app, which duly closed my account, but he was the first person in 60 adults worried enough about the child to take that step.
And this wasn’t before I’d already potentially put myself in grave danger from the app, which tells how nearby its members are in a measure of metres.
A reporter recognised one of the men who had posted his details on the app was sitting a few metres away on the train - a startling reminder of how easily someone could approach a child in person, should their picture happen to be on one of these sites.