Reported cases of online grooming in Scotland have increased by almost 80% over the last five years, a charity has warned.
Figures obtained by NSPCC Scotland reveal that Police Scotland recorded a record high of 685 offences of communicating a sexual message to a child in 2020/21, compared to 381 in 2015/16.
The charity claims that the true scale of online abuse is likely to be much higher as many crimes go unreported and technical failures at Facebook may have led to less information being passed on to the authorities last year.
They called on social media firms and the UK Government to take action to tackle the abuse, with the UK Government’s draft Online Safety Bill being described as a “landmark opportunity” to protect children online.
Facebook said it works quickly to find, remove and report online grooming, adding that it has introduced new safety measures for under-18s on some of its sites.
The UK Government said children’s safety is one of its highest priorities and claimed the new bill will impose fines and blocks on social media firms who do not take action on abuse.
However, Andy Burrows, NSPCC’s head of child safety online, said: “These are clearly very concerning figures showing a really significant increase over the last five years. This really underlines the scale and the urgency of the problem.
“We’ve known that online grooming is a problem that’s affecting children and families right across Scotland, but the growth of these figures is really a wake-up call that we need to see action being taken now.”
According to the figures, the number of grooming offences increased by 5% from 2019/20 to 2020/21, resulting in the record high. Offences against children under the age of 13 rose by 11% year on year.
Mr Burrows claimed the design of some social media sites and mobile applications allow offenders to easily exploit young people.
“It’s very important that we recognise that online child abuse is inherently preventable,” he said.
“What drives these figures is the inaction of social media firms who have largely only taken a very piecemeal approach to tragedy instead of taking proactive steps to make sure that their sites are safe.
“Offenders are able to contact and exploit children in ways that are far easier than ever before.
“For example, on some of the platforms with the highest number of grooming offences, we know that groomers are able to quite literally refresh the page and get a fresh list of children to contact as a result of the site algorithmically recommending them.
“We know that all groomers have to do is send a large number of friend requests to children on the expectation that a relatively small number might accept that request, and then through direct messages on those sites the grooming process starts.
“The groomers will then coerce children into sending images of themselves, or look to move children on to encrypted messaging or livestreaming sites.”
Earlier this year, Facebook confirmed that it had made changes to its Instagram site as part of efforts to protect young people.
This included preventing adults from messaging people under-18 who don’t follow them, setting under-18 accounts to private by default and introducing technology that makes it harder for potentially suspicious accounts to find young people.
The tech firm said it also uses technology which scans images and videos on Instagram and Facebook to flag exploitative material so that it can be removed.
However, NSPCC Scotland pointed out that technology issues at the site last year meant that the number of removed images more than halved at the end of 2020 and beginning of this year.
Mr Burrows added this meant less “actionable intelligence” was passed to police during the “perfect storm” of a pandemic which saw children at home and online more than ever before.
The charity is now calling for the Online Safety Bill to go further than planned to protect children, including addressing how abusers move between sites and imposing a duty of care on firms to proactively make their platforms safer.
Joanne Smith, NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager, said: “To respond to the size and complexity of the threat, the UK Government must make child protection a priority in legislation and ensure the Online Safety Bill does everything necessary to prevent online abuse.
“Legislation will only be successful if it achieves robust measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future.”
Mr Burrows added: “The biggest risk with the legislation is that we end up with something that feels comfortable to tech firms, rather than delivering the very clear objective of it doing everything possible to prevent entirely avoidable abuse.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said: ““This is abhorrent behaviour and we work quickly to find it, remove it and report it to the relevant authorities.
“With tens of millions of people in the UK using our apps every day, we are determined to continue developing new ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse.”
A government spokesperson added: “The strongest measures contained in the Online Safety Bill are designed to protect children. If social media companies do not properly assess or take action against the risks their sites pose to children, they will face heavy fines or have their sites blocked.
“The Bill will further make tech companies accountable to an independent regulator. We are clear that companies must continue to take responsibility for stopping the intolerable level of harmful material on their platforms and embed public safety in their system designs, which is why the Bill will also compel them to consider the risks associated with all elements of their services and take robust action to keep their users safe.”