The service’s Birmingham base delivered 473 counselling sessions on child sexual exploitation, grooming, and contact with a person who posed an online sexual abuse risk in 2019/20.
And across the UK, the service saw counselling sessions on these issues increase by 18% during lockdown.
The charity’s frontline teams, who work in the Protect and Respect service, worry that many more children may have suffered from sexual exploitation, and will not have had access to their normal avenues of support and protective adults.
This echoes the warning last week from Chief Constable Simon Bailey who said he suspected the 25% fall in referrals to the police was a “false and misleading picture” of what children may have experienced during those months.
The NSPCC routinely helps and hears from children who are being manipulated or blackmailed into carrying out sexual acts.
For many, this impacts on their mental health and leaves them feeling isolated from the people closest to them.
Some turn to self-harm, alcohol, or substance misuse as ways of coping with their experiences.
Matthew Brookes, a Senior Supervisor at Childline in Birmingham, said: “Young people will often not recognise themselves as victims of exploitation, due to the nature of grooming. That is why it’s so important that we empower them to recognise unhealthy relationships and perpetrators’ grooming behaviour.”
“Childline has been a vital source of support for children during the pandemic, to ensure they have had someone to talk to when they have felt there was nowhere else for them to turn.
“As COVID-19 continues to impact on our lives, we will continue to be there on the frontline to help children and young people.”
Since the NSPCC’s Protect and Respect service launched in 2012, it has supported 3,618 young people at risk of exploitation – almost half of referrals came from schools.
A 13-year old boy told Childline: “I’m worried about this “friend” I know online. We have built an online relationship but have never met. They told me how much they trust me and say, “I love you” all the time which makes me feel I have to say it back. Recently they asked me to watch things together online. I didn’t think anything of it until they started making me watch online content that was explicit and meant for adults. I feel trapped as I don’t know how to tell them I feel uncomfortable watching this sort of thing and now am beginning to think about all the things they have said to me in the past and realise it’s not right.”
Now children are back in school the charity wants to see communities – schools, parents, and professionals – work together to spot the signs of abuse, enable children to come forward, and make sure they have access to the right support.