More than 3,000 offences of grooming children online for sex have been committed by paedophiles in only the first year since a new law on sexual communication was introduced last April, police have revealed.
Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram accounted for almost three-quarters of the cases with sexual predators targeting children through a total of 80 different sites, apps or platforms, according to the figures obtained from police forces by the NSPCC. They youngest victim was just five years old.
The 3,171 offences are more than 50 per cent higher than the NSPCC expected in the first year based on what happened after similar legislation on sexual communication with a child was introduced in Scotland. A fifth of the cases involved children under 10.
The data has been revealed as part of The Telegraph’s Duty of Care campaign, which calls on the government to make social media and online gaming companies subject to a statutory duty to protect children from harms such as grooming, addiction and bullying.
Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, told The Telegraph, in advance of the NSPCC’s annual report and conference on child safety online:: “These numbers are far higher than we had predicted, and every single sexual message from an adult to a child can have a huge impact for years to come.
“Social networks have been self-regulated for a decade and it’s absolutely clear that children have been harmed as a result.
“I urge Culture Secretary Matt Hancock to follow through on his promise and introduce safety rules backed up in law and enforced by an independent regulator with fining powers.
“Social networks must be forced to design extra protections for children into their platforms, including algorithms to detect grooming to prevent abuse from escalating.”
The figures were obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the NSPCC in advance of its annual report and conference this week on child online safety which Mr Hancock will address.
They show three apps accounted for 70 per cent of the cases. They were Facebook (29.5 per cent), Snapchat (20.2 per cent) and Instagram (19.9 per cent).
Apps owned by Facebook including Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp were used in more than half the cases where a platform was disclosed by police.
Girls aged 12-15 were most likely to be targeted, accounting for 62 per cent of cases. Under-11s were recorded as the victim in nearly a quarter of cases (23.4 per cent). Many of the groomers were also charged with other offences including rape and sexual assault.
Among those who could have benefited from the law is Mared Parry, from North Wales, who was sent sexual messages from men ten years older than her on Facebook when she was aged just 14.
Mared, who has waived her right to anonymity, was groomed to send semi-naked pictures to them. She said: “At the beginning it was messages like ‘Hey, how are you?
“But as the weeks went on, they started sending messages that were more and more sexual. It was so subtle; that’s why it is so easy for an online chat to slip into being so wrong.
“If I didn’t reply or speak the way they wanted me to, then they would say: ‘You’re just too immature for me’. They were so manipulative, but you don’t even notice it.
“Looking back at it now, it’s scary to think that I sent semi-naked pictures to older guys. It could have gone a lot further.”
Protect yourself and your family. Find out more about our Duty of Care campaign to regulate social media