Lancashire charities support underage victims of grooming as shocking cyber cases rise during Covid pandemic
Charities have warned that referrals of children becoming victims of grooming online increased during the pandemic, with local figures showing four out of five underage victims are girls and some are younger than 11.
Figures obtained by the NSPCC showed that Lancashire Constabulary recorded 321 offences in which an adult engaged in sexual communication with a child under 16 between July 2020 and March this year.
As many as 51 cases recorded involved victims in primary school, under 11 years of age.
The gender of the victim was recorded in 202 of the crimes – 163 of which were female and 39 male.
The data also shows that where the age of the female victim was recorded, 122 were aged between 12 and 15, and 51 were under 11.
In some cases, a victim was not recorded. The NSPCC said this could be because the victim was a decoy acting as a child or because of inaccurate recording by the force.
The offence of sexual communication with a child, which was introduced in 2017 in England and Wales, refers to crimes committed online as well as in-person or via text message.
However, the NSPCC now estimates more than 95 per cent of such offences are committed via the internet.
Local Lancashire charity Nest, which supports children victims of crime aged as young as five, said that cyber-based crimes increased during the pandemic and that the number of crimes reported is only a glimpse into the scale of the issue.
The charity also stressed that this problem should not be put at the doors of concerned parents, who often struggle to police their child's activity online, which often includes 'sexting' and the sharing of indecent images.
Recent results from a survey by Andrew Snowden, Lancashire's Police and Crime Commissioner showed that 89 per cent of respondents want to see the issue tackled as a priority.
Reece Richards, Operations Manager, said: "We work with children who are victims of crime and we think that with lockdown and other influences, traditional types of crime such as assaults and peer on peer violence has been happening a lot less, but we have seen an increase in cyber-related crime, including sexually related incidents.
"Cyber related crime has certainly increased and particularly during the pandemic - we see a lot more of incident images shared between children of the same age and also with adults.
"We think a lot more education needs to be given to these young people as it is a relatively modern crime with the growth of the internet and social media and we are still only just understanding how young people use these platforms to communicate.
"Currently, we go to schools and talk to young people and work closely with victims of crime. For us at victim support, we support a young person regardless of whether or not it has been reported by the police. We want to increase our visibility and let young people know they can come to us.
"Statistically, our service will engage more young people than the statistics show because it can often go unreported and we also don't know about the ones who didn't report. Online crimes like grooming go largely unreported. The amount of cases reported is just a glimpse into the issue.
"I want young people to feel more engaged with our support and feel like they can seek help. We found that young people often don't report as they are concerned about their privacy and worry about being judged for their actions.
"Young people often don't understand the impact of how being groomed can affect them. Often, they may not know what has occurred to them and many are not mature enough to know how that will impact them months or even years later.
"I wouldn't ever want to lay blame at anyone door, including the parents of these young people. Of course, it's important for parents to be aware and that they also know we are here to help.
"Society is risky and young people will engage in a lot of those risks just being young. With the internet, we have introduced un-risk assessed behaviour. This is not playing out with friends or climbing trees, it's social media and we aren't sure ourselves yet on how to fully police that.
"Adults in society need to work harder to engage young people and make them aware of the dangers. Education is the key."
Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden said: "Online grooming and the exploitation of children and young people are abhorrent crimes and my recent survey shows that 89 per cent of respondents want to see these issues tackled as a priority.
"I will continue to invest in digital innovation within the force, giving more capacity to target online grooming and child abuse and to help protect those most vulnerable in our society.
"The Chief Constable utilises all his available officers and staff to target and disrupt such crimes and we maximise every opportunity to work with the Regional Organised Crime Unit and the National Crime Agency to strengthen our specialist capabilities to relentlessly take the fight to serious and organised crime groups.
"Ensuring that victims can access help and support is also really important. I commission Nest Lancashire to provide emotional and practical support for young people here in Lancashire. The support the team can offer to victims and their families is invaluable and I would urge anyone who has been affected by this type of crime to contact them."
And the NSPCC has also warned that more needs to be done to protect young girls, as new figures suggest they are the victim of four in five online grooming crimes in Lancashire.
The charity, which obtained the information from 43 police forces through a Freedom of Information request, is calling on new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to strengthen proposals in the draft Online Safety Bill to ensure girls are properly protected from online sexual abuse nationally.
The NSPCC is calling on the Government to act to ensure it lives up to its previously stated ambition of making the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online.
It said the Online Safety Bill, currently being examined by MPs and peers, must be strengthened to stop grooming and abuse spreading between apps, disrupt abuse at the earliest possible stage and hold senior managers to account.
Anna Edmundson, head of policy, said: “Any child can be a victim of online sexual abuse but the sheer number of girls being targeted is both alarming and a reminder of the failure of platforms to effectively protect their young users.
“One of the primary functions of the Online Safety Bill is to keep all children safe when they go online.
“Now, the new Culture Secretary has the opportunity to fix the substantive weaknesses in the legislation so it does just that.”
The Government said social media companies needed to clamp down on child abuse content and prevent young people from being groomed.
A spokesman said: “Our new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.
“Failing firms will face hefty fines or have their sites blocked, and we will have the power to make senior managers criminally liable for failing to protect children.”
Children and young people affected by grooming or exploitation can access specialist help and support from Nest Lancashire. Further information and a live chat option are available at www.nestlancashire.org.
Alternatively people can call 0300 111 0323 or text NEST and their number to 60777.