The number of children targeted for grooming and abuse on Instagram has more than tripled – with some of the victims as young as five years old.
The stats were obtained by the NSPCC and suggest there were 5,161 reports of sexual communications with a child recorded in just 18 months.
Instagram was used in 32% of the cases where the method was recorded, Facebook in 23% and Snapchat in 14%. In summary, the three social media platforms were used in 70% of the incidents.
From April to September 2017 Instagram was used by groomers in 126 instances but it was recorded 428 times in the same period last year, an increase of 239%.
The statistics, provided by 39 of the 43 forces in England and Wales under freedom of information laws, show that in the latest six-month period girls aged 12 to 15 were the most likely to be targeted and that victims were as young as five.
Commenting on the findings the NSPCC’s chief executive, Peter Wanless, has accused social media firms of “10 years of failed self-regulation”.
He said: “These figures are overwhelming evidence that keeping children safe cannot be left to social networks.”
The NSPCC said the figures did not “fully reflect the scale of the issue”, as many crimes go undetected or unreported.
Are social media platforms doing enough to protect children?
The worrying figures come amid growing concern about how social networks protect the children using their platforms.
The government is due to release a white paper about online harms, and the NSPCC hopes this will include new laws to tackle grooming.
Following the figures the NSPCC have now launched their #WildWestWeb campaign, which is calling for an independent regulator with the power to investigate and fine social networks if they fall short in protecting children.
Yahoo UK has contacted Facebook, which also owns Instagram, for comment and the company responded to say that they do not allow content or behaviour that puts the privacy and safety of minors at risk and are working hard with law enforcement to detect and prevent child exploitation.
“Keeping young people safe on our platforms is our top priority and child exploitation of any kind is not allowed,” a spokesperson said.
“We use advanced technology and work closely with the police and CEOP [Child Exploitation and Online Protection] to aggressively fight this type of content and protect young people.”
A spokesperson for Snapchat told Yahoo UK that the company works hard to combat criminal and harmful activity, working closely with law enforcement: “While we understand that any service that facilitates private communication has the potential to be abused, we go to great lengths – within the bounds of existing law – to try to prevent and respond quickly to this type of illegal activity on our platform.
“Snapchat is a fun way to keep in touch with your closest friends so we recommend Snapchatters avoid friending anyone they don’t know in real life or changing their default privacy settings from friends only.”
The company also pointed out that Snapchat is different from other platforms, in that users need to know someone’s username or have their telephone number saved in their phone in order to add a contact.
The explained that by default a profile is private so you cannot receive any messages on Snapchat from someone who you haven’t already added as a friend on the app.
How can parents keep children safe online?
Alastair Graham, CEO of AgeChecked says that both the Government and Social Media sites need to step up to protect children online.
“We have a responsibility to protect young people from online risks, just as we do in the offline world,” he explains. “However, with the Internet so easily accessible, it’s not possible for parents to monitor their children 24/7. It’s therefore critical that social media sites and the Government share responsibility and work with parents to ensure that there are proper age filters in place.”
“Incoming regulation under the Digital Economy Act, which requires the use of age-gates on adult content websites, is a step in the right direction. However, we have a moral obligation to do more. There is no reason why this approach cannot be replicated across all websites where grooming is a significant concern, such as social media.
“New technologies can bring great benefits, but can also create new risks to children. These risks should not be just accepted as part of a new paradigm. Often, if we give these matters some thought, solutions are close to hand. These solutions should be seamlessly integrated into business models to ensure they are fit-for-purpose in future.”
But while we wait for the safety improvements here’s how you can help ensure that your children’s scrolling is as safe as possible.
Talk to your children
“Have regular conversations with your child(ren) – making them aware of how to be safe online,” David Emm, from cybersecurity and anti-virus provider Kaspersky Lab says.
“Agree which sites are appropriate for them and ensure they understand the reasoning behind this. They also need to know that they can – and should – confide in a trusted adult if they experience something upsetting whilst online.”
Teach them the no-share rule
While we grown-ups might be well aware about the dangers of sharing information online, children might not be. “Remind your child not to give out personal information or content to anyone online,” David says.
Activate safety settings
“Parental controls can be installed to help prevent children from viewing age-inappropriate content,” David says. “In the Apple App Store, you can create a PIN code to allow purchases of apps.”
Check your privacy
“Any social platform — be it Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or others — requires attention when it comes to protecting personal data,” explains a spokesperson for McAfee.
Mute, block, then report
When in doubt, report. “Make use of the mute, block and report features – This will protect them from a lot of harmful content,” says David.
Teach them the ‘when to tell rule’
“Encourage your child to tell you or a teacher if they have seen something inappropriate or upsetting online,” suggests Adele Jennings, blogger at ourfamilylife.co.uk, who has been working with Internet Matters for almost 4 years on helping parents keep children safe while they are online.
“Don’t tell them off as they are likely to not mention things in future. Try and react in a calm manner and tell them it’s really good that they have told you.”
Explain what ‘digital footprint’ means
And “remind them that everything posted online can be there forever,” says Adele. “People can save and screenshot messages and pictures.”
Have Screen Time boundaries
Adele suggests creating a family contract which enables you as a family to have screen-free time.
Get involved in their online world
“Be interested, and ask them to teach you how to do the games or apps the like to use,” suggests Adele. “Kids love to tell parents how to do things that they don’t know.”
Be a firm, focused digital parent. “So much of parenting is spent communicating goals, but effective parenting happens in following through with those goals,” advises a spokesperson for McAfee. “Don’t just communicate the digital risks; follow through to make sure your child makes the hands-on changes.”
“For kids: Wipe social profiles clean of any personal information such as school name, age, address, phone number, email, location, and any other personal content.”