As we enter week two of the second national lockdown in England the sense of déjà vu is palpable. And once again the NSPCC is having to highlight the scale of online grooming of children in the UK.
We have been here before. Our Wild West Web campaign has been at the forefront demanding that basic child protection be designed into the online world for children. The NSPCC has highlighted how, time and again, industry self-regulation of social media has failed children and families across the country.
The latest statistics reveal what we feared. That offenders have been taking advantage of the pandemic to groom and abuse children on social networks. More than 1,200 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded by police in just three months between April and June. We estimate that this is a ten percent increase in offences during lockdown compared with the previous year*. Sadly, when the true scale of online abuse during the pandemic is revealed, I fear this figure will be much higher.
It need not have been this way. Back in the spring firms were warned that the effects of the pandemic would create a perfect storm for abusers online.
With working patterns changed, offenders at home more, we predicted that the demand for sexual abuse images would increase, and inevitably we would see more grooming of children to fuel this dreadful trade.
Tech firms did not heed the warning and, over the ensuing months, have failed to act. While the country came together to support the vulnerable, continued failure by industry to design their sites with safety in mind left children at greater risk of harm and abuse.
Perhaps understandably, they had fewer moderators working due to necessary lockdown restrictions, but they still failed to prioritise protecting children. Instagram removed 50% fewer child abuse reports and 75% fewer suicide and self-harm images between April and June. At the same time the platform was increasingly being exploited by abusers to groom children, with 37% of recorded cases taking place on this one social network.
The conclusion is clear. Regulation of social media to protect children is needed now more than ever.
Coronavirus has systemically changed the threat children face online. High risk livestreaming and video chatting sites have become more prevalent and children are spending more time on online.
When you face a systemic threat, you need a systemic response. That must come in the form of a legally enforceable Duty of Care that puts child protection at the heart of decision making when designing the sites young people use.
The Government has the opportunity to do this with its upcoming Online Harms Bill. They can get tough on online crimes against children and stand up for families in the UK.
I am told that the Prime Minister is currently deliberating new laws and the Government will be publishing them shortly. Some might say this is not a top priority at this moment, but the statistics released today show that it must be.
At the Government’s Hidden Harms Summit in May, I laid out the case to the Prime Minister for bold and ambitious Online Harms legislation that would result in lasting change for children in this country and see Britain set the global standard for child online safety.
He said he had a ferocious determination to make this a reality. The Prime Minister said he would bring in sweeping measures against those who put children at risk of unnecessary and avoidable harm online.
I urge him to back this passion up with legislation that puts the onus on tech firms to prevent harm, with a regulator that can hold companies and named managers financially and criminally accountable for gross breaches of their Duty of Care.
The NSPCC has published six tests against which we can judge the Government’s proposals. These include creating an expansive, principles-based duty of care that tackles both online sexual abuse and legal but harmful content.
Failure to pass these tests will mean more children suffering the impact of avoidable abuse, leaving families to pick up the pieces and society to count the cost of harm that could have been stopped. Success and the Prime Minister will truly be able to say he’s helped make Britain the safest place in the world for a child to be online.
Peter Wanless is the Chief Executive of the NSPCC