Huge increase in child abuse image offences recorded by police in Wales as crimes jump by 43 per cent in five years
NSPCC warns online child abuse becoming “normalised” and urges Government to commit to a statutory child safety advocate in Online Safety Bill
Child abuse image offences recorded by police in Wales have surged by 624 (43%) in five years, an NSPCC investigation has revealed, with three out of the four police forces across Wales showing significant rises and only Dyfed-Powys showing a slight fall (from 363 to 356).
More than 30,000 crimes involving the sharing and possession of indecent images of children took place across the UK last year (2021/22), according to freedom of information data obtained by the children’s charity. This included 2,061 such crimes recorded by the four police forces in Wales, an increase from 1,437 in 2016/17.
The NSPCC warns that unregulated social media is fuelling the unprecedented scale of online child sexual abuse and behind every offence could be multiple child victims who are continually revictimized as images are shared.
They said the issue of young people being groomed into sharing images of their own abuse is pervasive and tech bosses are failing to stop their sites being used by offenders to organise, commit and share child sexual abuse.
The charity is calling on Government to give children, including victims of sexual abuse, a powerful voice and expert representation in future regulation by creating a statutory child safety advocate through the Online Safety Bill. This would ensure that children’s experiences are front and centre of decision making, building safeguarding experience into regulation to prioritise child protection.
It comes as the new research shows Snapchat is the social media site offenders most used to share child abuse images. The app, popular with teens, was used in 43 per cent of instances where platform data was provided by police.
Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, which are all owned by Meta, were used in a third of instances where a site was flagged. And for the first-time virtual reality environments and Oculus headsets, used to explore the Metaverse, were found to be involved in recorded child sexual abuse image crimes.
The NSPCC said committing to a statutory child safety advocate is crucial to act as an early warning system to identify emerging child abuse risks and ensure they are on the radar of companies and the regulator Ofcom. The advocate would reflect the experiences of young people and be a statutory counterbalance the power of the big tech lobby to help drive a corporate culture that focusses on preventing abuse.
Holly* called Childline in despair when she was 14. She said: “I am feeling sick with fear. I was talking with this guy online and trusted him. I sent him quite a lot of nude pictures of myself and now he is threatening to send them to my friends and family unless I send him more nudes or pay him.
“I reported it to Instagram, but they still haven’t got back. I don’t want to tell the police because my parents would then know what I did and would be so disappointed.”
Roxy Longworth was 13 when she was contacted by a boy four years older than her on Facebook who coerced her into sending images via Snapchat.
He sent the pictures to his friends which resulted in Roxy being blackmailed and manipulated into sending more images to another older boy who shared them via social media.
Roxy said: “I sat on the floor and cried. I’d lost all control and there was no one to talk to about it. I blocked him on everything and prayed he wouldn’t show anyone the pictures because of how young I was.
“After that, I was just waiting to see what would happen. Eventually someone in my year sent me some of the pictures and that’s when I knew they were out.”
Sir Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the NSPCC, said: “These new figures are incredibly alarming but reflect just the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.
“We hear from young people who feel powerless and let down as online sexual abuse risks becoming normalised for a generation of children.
“By creating a child safety advocate that stands up for children and families the Government can ensure the Online Safety Bill systemically prevents abuse.
“It would be inexcusable if in five years’ time we are still playing catch-up to pervasive abuse that has been allowed to proliferate on social media.”
Online Safety Bill amendments
The NSPCC is seeking amendments to the Online Safety Bill as it passes through the House of Lords to improve its response to child sexual abuse.
They are asking Lords to back the creation of a child safety advocate which would mirror statutory user advocacy arrangements that are effective across other regulated sectors.
The amendment would give Ofcom access to children’s voices and experiences in real time via an expert child safety advocate akin to Citizen’s Advice acting for energy and postal consumers.
And after the Government committed to holding senior managers liable if their products contribute to serious harm to children the charity says this must also include where sites put children at risk of sexual abuse.
The move would mean bosses responsible for child safety would be held criminally liable if their sites continue to expose children to preventable abuse – which is backed by an overwhelming majority of the public.
Meta Encryption In response to the latest data, the NSPCC also renewed calls on Meta to pause plans to roll out default end-to-end encryption of Facebook and Instagram messenger services in order to comply with future requirements of the Online Safety Bill.
They said Meta will turn a blind eye to child abuse by making it impossible to identify grooming and the sharing of images making the importance of external bodies such as a child safety advocate even more paramount.
However, the charity said the Online Safety Bill should be seen as an opportunity to incentivise companies to invest in technological solutions to end-to-end encryption that protect adult privacy, the privacy of sexual abuse victims and keep children safe.
(*Names have been changed to protect anonymity)