Urgent action needed after 32% rise in online grooming in Scotland, says NSPCC

Stricter online protection laws must be introduced after online grooming rose by nearly a third during the Covid-19 lockdown, according to a children’s charity.

The NSPCC said there were 268 recorded incidents of an adult communicating indecently with a child in Scotland between April 1 to July 31.

It is a rise of 32% from last year’s 203 crimes, with the charity saying the true scale of the problem is likely to be much higher.

On Wednesday, Police Scotland also revealed there was an 18% increase in online child sexual abuse crimes between April and September this year.

Now, the NSPCC is calling on the UK Government to approve the Online Harms Bill, which would introduce tougher laws on technology firms to help protect children.

The charity said these companies have failed to do enough to prevent offenders exploiting their sites and abusing children.

One girl who contacted Childline during the pandemic said: “I am 12 and I don’t have social media but I wanted to get online and chat to people since my friends had done it and told me it would be fun.

“It started off fine with the occasional ‘hi’ and then men started sending dick pics and saying really personal things.”

The NSPCC argues poorly designed social media sites are putting children at risk and the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for a surge in online grooming.

Chief executive Peter Wanless has urged the UK Government to introduce the legislation, which will create a duty of care for tech firms.

The Bill would allow companies and named managers to be held criminally responsible for failing to protect children from avoidable harm and abuse.

Mr Wanless said: “Families have long paid the price for big tech’s failure to protect children from abuse but the Prime Minister has the chance to turn the tide and put responsibility on firms to clean up the mess they created.

“As the pandemic intensifies the threat children face online, bold and ambitious action is needed in the form of a world-leading Online Harms Bill.

“This means legislation that is tough on online crimes against children and regulation that holds tech companies and bosses financially and criminally responsible if they continue to turn a blind eye to entirely avoidable harm.”

With ongoing coronavirus restrictions and children spending more time at home and online, the charity believes the risk of online abuse will continue to spike and many more offences may come to light when children report them at school.

Detective Chief Superintendent Samantha McCluskey (pictured), head of Police Scotland’s Public Protection Unit, said: “The digital world opens up massive opportunities for us all.

“As a society it has become integral to our daily lives, particularly for children and young people, whose key means of communication during this pandemic has been online.

“It is important that we take every opportunity to ensure young people stay safe and are protected.”

She added: “Online predators will infiltrate those platforms and apps most used by children.

“Tech companies and service providers have a key role and a responsibility in ensuring young people can access their services safely and that predators are identified and dealt with before they can groom or abuse children in the virtual or real world.

“Working together we can make the online world safe for all children.”

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