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Children as young as two targeted in grooming cases involving Facebook apps

Facebook was involved in more than half of online grooming cases according to NSPCC figures.
Facebook was involved in more than half of online grooming cases according to NSPCC figures.

Facebook and apps owned by the social network were used in more than half of online grooming cases, an NSPCC investigation has found.

A toddler was among the victims in the North East who were targeted by online predators, according to the inquiry carried out by the children's charity.

There were 173 grooming cases across the region, with figures revealing the two-year-old was the youngest victim in the 62 offences tackled by Cleveland Police.

Of those, 22 involved Facebook as a means of communication, while 11 were via Instagram, seven used Snapchat, one was through WhatsApp and three were phone calls.

In Durham, 92 offences were handled by Durham Constabulary, with no details given for the age of victims.

It found 21 of those offences were via Facebook, 20 used Instagram, six were through Snapchat, one used WhatsApp and two involved the messaging service Kik.

Across the Northumbria Police area, 19 grooming offences were recorded, with the youngest victim ages nine.

Six of those offences involved the use of Facebook, one was via Instagram and four were through Snapchat.

Sex offences recorded in connection with grooming crimes and revealed as part of the national research include rape, causing sexual activity without consent,sexual activity with a child under 13 and inciting a child to engage in sexual activity.

The wider picture showed that in the first nine months of a new offence of Sexual Communication with a Child, there were 1,628 crimes recorded in England and Wales, and police revealed what platform was used in 956 cases.

Across England and Wales, Facebook and apps it owns, Instagram and Whatsapp, were used in 52% of cases, with Facebook being the most-recorded site overall.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has heralded the end of the Wild West Web campaign, and the NSPCC is urging him to follow through by bringing in a regulator to force social networks to keep children safe.

Figures from Freedom of Information requests show the shocking number of cases where groomers used Facebook, and apps owned by Facebook.

Where the method of communication used by predators was logged by police:

*Facebook was used in a third (32.6%) of cases

*Facebook owned apps Instagram and Whatsapp were used in nearly a fifth (19.8%) of

cases

*The second most-used app was Snapchat – 176 cases

At present DCMS has plans 2 to introduce a voluntary code for social networks, which sites could choose to adhere to, or ignore.

For the past 10 years social networks have been allowed to self-regulate, and yet they have consistently failed to take the necessary action needed to keep children safe.

The NSPCC is calling on Mr Hancock to go further than this and bring in a mandatory code to regulate social networks so that grooming can be prevented, rather than relying on police to

intervene after harm has already been done.

As part of its #WildWestWeb campaign the NSPCC is calling for Mr Hancock to bring in:

1. An independent regulator for social networks with fining powers.

2. A mandatory code which introduces Safe Accounts for children; grooming alerts using

algorithms; and fast-tracking of reports to moderators which relate to child safety.

3. Mandatory transparency reports forcing social networks to disclose how many safety

reports they get, and how they deal with those reports.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has a golden opportunity to put an end to the Wild West Web and force social networks to protect

children online.

“Facebook has shown it is happy to use data for commercial purposes, but has failed to harness data in a way that can be used to prevent grooming.

“Facebook should be leading the way, but instead it has demonstrated time and again that self-regulation isn’t working and social networks can’t be left to mark their own homework.

“Mr Hancock could be the person who makes the internet a safer place, for every child now and in the future.

"We hope he seizes the chance to do that.”

More about the #WildWestWeb campaign can be found by clicking here.