During the wait for improved online safety laws, tens of thousands of grooming crimes have been recorded.
The Online Safety Bill, which is meant to become law this autumn, has encountered numerous delays and changes since it become a proposed legislation.
As a result, the children’s charity NSPCC has called on MPs and tech giants to support the Bill, especially since 34,000 online grooming crimes had been recorded by UK police forces over the last six years, since first calling for more robust safety regulations in 2017.
Based on data from 42 UK police forces, the NSPCC said that last year, 6,350 offences related to the sexual communication with a child were recorded. Some 5,500 took place against primary school-aged children, and 73% of the crimes were related to Meta-linked platforms or Snapchat.
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “The number of offences must serve as a reminder of why the Online Safety Bill is so important and why the ground-breaking protections it will give children are desperately needed.
“We’re pleased the government has listened and strengthened the legislation so companies must tackle how their sites contribute to child sexual abuse in a tough but proportionate way, including in private messaging.”
Here are some of the red flags parents should be on the look out for.
Being secretive about how they are spending their time
On their website, Childline define grooming as someone building a child’s trust to make a connection in order to do something sexual or illegal.
“Studies show parental supervision typically declines as children get older, however online abuse does not,” said Mark Bentley, safeguarding and cyber security lead at charity The National Grid for Learning (LGfL).
From being secretive to omitting relevant information, changes in behaviour can vary from child to child. But it’s something for all parents to be mindful of when their child starts using social media more.
“Unfortunately, as in many areas of child protection, indicators of abuse can often mirror natural markers of growing up,” said Bentley. “As children and adolescents develop, they seek independence from parents, engage in risk taking and have changes in mood and friendship group.
“Nonetheless, these markers remain vital to watch out for, even if it is just to support your growing child. Those who are being groomed online are much more likely to be defensive and secretive about phone usage and loathed to be separated from their device.”
Having unexplained gifts, big or small
Buying gifts for children, whether big or small, can be another grooming technique used to flatter children and their families.
“Some groomers have been known to provide alternative phones just to contact them, and this is always a red flag if you suspect your child may have a secondary device,” said Bentley.
They are spending too much time onlineSocial media may promote negative experiences if no boundaries have been established.“Of course, some of these [red] flags can also be a sign of the child going through adolescence but it’s important to discuss any unusual behaviour with them as soon as possible,” said Simon Newman, member of International Cyber Expo’s advisory council and of the Cyber Resilience Centre for London.“The way groomers target children varies, but is often done through social media sites, text messages and apps, emails or online forums – particularly gaming sites.”They develop friendships with a much older person
Children and young people can be groomed by a stranger or by someone they know – such as a family member, friend or professional, according to NSPCC.
But the age gap between a child and their groomer can also be relatively small. The groomer may also work towards building a relationship with the family to gain trust, so they can be left alone with the child.
“There are various models of the stages of grooming, but at heart it revolves around building up trust and making a child feel understood and listened to in a way they do not feel elsewhere, and then breaking down the links of trust to family, school, friends and other adults,” said Bentley.
“Any parent thinking that this might be happening should definitely reach out for help.”