WITH kids stuck in bedrooms and social media more popular than ever, lockdown has provided the perfect conditions for online paedophiles.
The NSPCC has recorded a 60 per cent increase in calls about online child sexual abuse since April and calls to Childline about grooming have jumped 11 per cent from 207 per month to 230.
Even before lockdown the number of online sex crimes against children recorded by police reached 101 a DAY in England and Wales, between January and March, up from 99 a day the year before, according the the Office of National Statistics.
Today MPs will debate the Online Harms Bill – which calls for an independent regulator to hold tech companies like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok to account for neglecting child safety on their platforms.
The white paper, which could mean hefty fines if harmful material is not removed swiftly, was unveiled last year following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing online images of self-harm.
But the NSPCC fears the bill will not go far enough and is calling for tough action against sites which fail to protect children.
CEO Peter Wanless tells the Sun: “The Government has a choice. They can either flex their muscles with bold and ambitious legislation that makes Britain the safest place in the world for a child to be online. Or they can let tech firms continue to get away with exposing our kids to avoidable harm.”
Here we talk to a mum whose nine-year-old was abused online and a teenager whose life was ruined by sexting.
Lured in by ‘fun’ chat then asked for pictures
Growing up in the North East, Milly* was an active happy-go-lucky child, who loved mountain-climbing and cheerleading.
When she first asked if she could download the app Likee, to make dance videos she could share with her friends, mum Jane said no.
But, after talking to other mums, who convinced her it was harmless, she relented.
“We thought as long as Milly agreed to have the settings on ‘private’, so only her friends could see her videos, no harm would come to her,” Jane tells Sun Online.
“Looking back I was naive about how easy it is to change settings, and Milly did that.”
A few weeks later, Milly was contacted by a stranger who claimed to be her own age.
“She told us later that the conversations started as fun, they made each other laugh and she thought this person was cool,” says Jane.
“Then he started asking her to take inappropriate pictures of herself, first of her bare legs and then other parts of her body.”
Coerced into topless picture with sick kidnap threats
When Milly refused to send a topless picture, the threats began – with the sick paedophile telling her he knew where she lived and that he was going to take her away from her family.
“She was very frightened,” says Jane. “So sadly she sent that image.
“He then wanted one that was ‘lower’. But she said no, and that’s when she broke down and told me everything.
“She was so upset, it took hours to get all the information, but I was in complete shock.
“When I finally got her to sleep, at nearly midnight, I called the police.”
The police traced the IP address of the account holder, but told Jane it was too difficult to pursue the case because the perpetrator – who police think was an older male – was overseas.
A few weeks later, Jane logged in to Likee on her own phone, using Milly’s account.
“I was looking at all these beautiful videos that she’d made and a message came through from the same person saying, ‘Hey babe, where have you been sexy? I’ve missed you.’
“I went along with the conversation because I wanted to gather evidence for the police.
She went from smiling all the time to constantly crying. She was quiet and withdrawn, had meltdowns at school and suffered nightmares.
“He sent me a picture of another little girl’s legs and asked Milly to do the same. I was horrified, shaking with shock and anger..”
Sadly, the vile predator deleted his account before police could trace him.
Frightened and traumatised, it took Milly a year to get over her ordeal.
“She was a changed child,” says Jane. “She went from smiling all the time to constantly crying. She was quiet and withdrawn, had meltdowns at school and suffered nightmares.
“One night she told me she had a nightmare ‘about this man pinning me down on the ground and grabbing my butt’, which is not a word we ever use, so she must have learned from the chat.
“For around a year she felt low and bad about the way she’d been tricked and threatened.”
Full statement from Peter Wanless, CEO of the NSPCC
“Countless children and families like Jane and Eleanor suffer sickening sexual abuse online because tech giants are failing to make theirs sites safe.
For years Silicon Valley have been able to write their own rules and, as a direct result, there were 100 sex crimes against children a day recorded by police in this country. The response of these companies has been to turn a blind eye rather than make protecting our kids a priority.
Worryingly, indicators suggest that since the pandemic struck and the lockdown kicked in online crimes against children have accelerated.
Since 2018 we have been campaigning for an Online Harms Bill that would deliver lasting change for children in this country. It would see an obligation for tech firms to exercise a duty of care to our children and if they fail, a regulator with teeth to punish them with hefty fines and criminal sanctions.
When I spoke to Boris Johnson, he said he had a ferocious determination to make this a reality.
Now the Government has a choice. They can either flex their muscles with bold and ambitious legislation that makes Britain the safest place in the world for a child to be online. Or they can let tech firms continue to get away with exposing our kids to avoidable harm.”
Nude pics shared by ex
Sadly, Milly isn’t alone.
Eleanor*, from Kent, was 14 when her boyfriend of 10 months persuaded her to send naked pictures.
“It’s not something I would normally do but I was on holiday and he started saying, ‘We haven’t seen each other in a while’ and I gave in,” she says.
“I used Snapchat because you could set the timer to two seconds and the app would tell you if they screen-shotted the photos.”
Unbeknownst to Eleanor, however, the boy had downloaded an app which allowed him to save pictures from Snapchat without her knowledge.
Three months after she sent the pictures, in November 2016, Eleanor’s boyfriend broke it off and, she claims, began to spread rumours and ostracise her from her friends.
She was badly bullied, with people calling her names, pushing her and throwing things at her, until she decided to switch schools.
It was then her ex shared her pictures.
“He’d been quite controlling when we were together and he couldn’t control me anymore,” she says.
“I was happy, I had new friends and I was hanging out with boys again. I think he saw that.’
A stranger threatened to expose me if I didn’t send more pictures.
“Two weeks after I moved schools, a boy from my old school sent me the nude photo I’d sent to my ex-boyfriend, to let me know it was being shared. I froze. I just told him to delete it.
“Then I got messages on Snapchat from people I didn’t know saying they had the photos of me.
“One threatened to expose me if I didn’t send more pictures.”
Stress causes hair loss
Embarrassed and alone, Eleanor kept it to herself for two months, but her mental health spiralled downwards.
“I was so stressed and worried that my hair started falling out and my skin flared up,” she says.
“I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly. I was withdrawn, I was constantly paranoid that strangers were going to recognise me.”
What the NSPCC is calling for in the Online Harms Bill
A new NSPCC report, How the Wild West Web Should Be Won, sets out how the upcoming Online Harms Bill must set the global standard in protecting children on the web.
They are urging the Government to ensure they level the playing field for children, and new laws force tech firms to tackle the avoidable harm caused by their sites.
The NSPCC is worried the landmark opportunity to change the landscape for children online could be missed if this isn’t translated by Government into law.
They have released their six tests ahead of a full consultation response to the White Paper, amid concerns Ministers are wavering in their ambitions for robust regulation.
- Create an expansive, principles-based duty of care
- Comprehensively tackle online sexual abuse
- Put legal but harmful content on an equal footing with illegal material
- Have robust transparency and investigatory powers
- Hold industry to account with criminal and financial sanctions
- Give civil society a legal voice for children with user advocacy arrangements
The charity believes the right regulation could set a British model that leads the world in child protection online.
But, in a stark warning, CEO Peter Wanless said that “failing to pass any of the six tests will mean that rather than tech companies paying the cost of their inaction, future generations of children will pay with serious harm and sexual abuse that could have been stopped.”
Desperate, Eleanor contacted Childline who put her in touch with Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) who were so concerned for her safety they called her school and her parents were informed.
The police confiscated the phones of her ex and two friends and took statements from various witnesses.
But, after two years, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute because they said they couldn’t prove Eleanor hadn’t sent pictures to all three boys herself.
Despite moving from the area, Eleanor has been left mentally scarred.
“I’m distrustful of people in relationships and it has affected my mental health,” she says. “I’ve been through counselling, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”
LET HER REST
Mum & kids killed by evil husband have last moments revealed in prison letters
Fresh hopes of finding missing MH370 plane after debris spotted on beach
Warning as cannabis sweets ’50x stronger than a joint’ leave 13 girls in hospital
LOCK & A HARD PLACE
PM mulls tougher lockdown in North with pubs closed as Covid cases soar
Brit bike champ ‘saw bride ‘flip out’ of hotel window while looking for ring’
Former Human Ken Doll shows off her curves with her plastic surgeon boyfriend
Eleanor says the emphasis on the law and the approach from schools needs to change from victim to perpetrator.
“The current laws are vague and haven’t been updated with technology, so focus on texts and email not social media,” she says.
“Schools have assemblies and the focus is on ‘don’t send.’ But if you tell children constantly not to do something, it goes in one ear and out the other.
“The emphasis needs to be on if someone sends you a picture of themselves, ignore it, delete it, don’t save it and don’t share it.
“At the moment, they’re not only criminalising people who share the images, but also people like me who sent them to my partner which is illegal. Something needs to change.”
*Names have been changed to protect the children involved