Children who are lonely and rely on social media are more than twice as likely to be groomed online, according to new research from the NSPCC.
With millions of people – including children – spending more time online during self-isolation because of coronavirus, the charity has urged internet companies to prioritise the safety of young people.
The charity says it is concerned for the safety of children online, claiming the coronavirus lockdown has created a “perfect storm” for offenders to target lonely and isolated children.
The NSPCC’s latest research – based on a survey of more than 2,000 young people aged 11 to 17 – indicated that 4% had sent, received or been asked to send sexual messages to an adult online.
However, this figure more than doubled to 9% for respondents with characteristics that may make them vulnerable, such as loneliness, greater usage of social media, unhappiness and liking attention.
The research also suggests that 9% of respondents had sent, received or been asked to send sexual messages by another young person, which again more than doubled to 20% for those with the same vulnerable characteristics.
The charity said Childline counselling sessions had revealed that young people are feeling lonely and anxious during the Covid-19 lockdown, and as a result were spending more time online to try and stay in touch with friends.
The NSPCC also cited a recent report from the National Crime Agency (NCA) which said it had seen online chats showing offenders discussing opportunities to abuse children during the pandemic, as a warning of the dangers vulnerable children could face online.
It also warned that the extra pressure on social media firms, who have fewer human staff available to carry out content moderation because of the lockdown, meant that platforms may struggle to maintain regular levels of content moderation.
Andy Burrows, NSPCC head of child safety online policy said: “Through this survey, we have heard the voices of lonely, vulnerable children and discovered how much more exposed they are to online abuse.
“It’s particularly worrying during the lockdown as it is clear now that it has never been easier for abusers to exploit lonely children who are spending a lot of time online.
“This crisis has exposed the child protection cracks that were already there in social networks, so now more than ever tech firms must step up and ensure their services are safe.”
The charity has called on tech firms to prioritise their available moderation on immediate child abuse risks, and to share data with the Government on abuse referrals made to child safety organisations so that abuse risk cases can be identified and tracked.
It also calls for the firms to share intelligence on emerging risks with other platforms and law enforcement agencies, to help better understand the changing grooming threat.
The NSPCC added that parents and carers also had an important role to play by being aware of online risks and having regular conversations with their children about what they are doing online.
This comes as the Government published new advice to help people, particularly children, stay safe online during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Staying at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives means we are spending more time online,” said Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture.
“This means we must all be extra vigilant, follow good security practice and make sure our children are safe too.
“It’s also important that we check the facts behind what we read and remember to take regular breaks.
“We are completely committed to making the UK the safest place to be online, and that’s why we have brought together a wealth of practical advice which I urge parents to use and share with their children.”