Police forces in the South West recorded almost 7,000 crimes relating to child abuse images in the past five years.
Figures obtained by the NSPCC do not include Avon and Somerset Police, which covers Somerset and Bristol – meaning the true figure is likely to be far higher.
Forces in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon and Cornwall recorded a combined total of 1,752 such crimes in 2020/2021, according to the charity’s Freedom of Information requests, up from 1,387 the previous year.
Offences also jumped by 26 per cent in the South West during the first year of the pandemic, which the NSPCC previously warned had created a “perfect storm” for grooming and abuse online.
Statistics include offences relating to possessing, taking, making, and distributing child abuse material. Offences recorded by police UK-wide passed 100,000 in the five-year period, with more than 25,000 crimes last year – up 37 per cent since 2016/17.
In Gloucestershire 279 such crimes were recorded in 2020/21, up from just 37 in 2016/17.
The NSPCC said social media is now being “used by groomers as a conveyor belt to produce and share child abuse images on an industrial scale”.
The child protection charity is calling for changes to the Online Safety Bill, to help disrupt the production and spread of child abuse material on social media.
It expects the draft bill to be scrutinised in Parliament next week, and is calling for five key additions before it is finalised.
The NSPCC’s chief executive, Sir Peter Wanless, said: “The staggering amount of child sexual abuse image offences is being fuelled by the ease with which offenders are able to groom children across social media to produce and share images on an industrial scale.
“The Government recognises the problem and has created a landmark opportunity with the Online Safety Bill.
“But the legislation needs strengthening in clear and specific ways if it is to fundamentally address the complex nature of online abuse and prevent children from coming to avoidable harm.”
Boy left suicidal after abuse
The charity shared the story of 14-year-old Ben, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
It said he was tricked on Facebook into thinking he was speaking to a female friend of a friend, who turned out to be a man.
What is grooming?
According to NSPCC, it is defined as “when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking.
“Children and young people can be groomed online or face-to-face, by a stranger or by someone they know – for example a family member, friend or professional.
“Groomers may be male or female. They could be any age.
“Many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed or that what has happened is abuse.”
Using threats and blackmail he coerced Ben into sending abuse images and performing sex acts live on Skype. The images and videos were shared with five other men who then bombarded Ben with further demands, according to the NSPCC.
Ben’s mum said: “The abuse Ben suffered had a devastating impact on our family. It lasted two long years, leaving him suicidal.
“It should not be so easy for an adult to meet and groom a child on one site then trick them into livestreaming their own abuse on another app, before sharing the images with like-minded criminals at the click of a button.
“Social media sites should have to work together to stop this abuse happening in the first place, so other children do not have to go through what Ben did.”
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