Northern Ireland online child sex victims on the rise
Sexual predators used the internet to target children almost 200 times in Northern Ireland in the past year - committing crimes that included rape, assault and grooming.
Britain's leading child abuse charity, which released the disturbing figures, said it represented a 28% rise in the web-related sexual abuse of children in 2016/17.
The NSPCC gathered the statistics after hearing accounts by children of how they were raped and bribed by online abusers into performing sex acts on webcams and in person.
Politicians here and across Britain must now make internet safety for minors a "top priority" and put measures in place to stop social media sites being used as gateways for paedophiles, the charity said.
From April 2016 to March 2017 there were 178 recorded cases of cyber sex crime in Northern Ireland, up from 139 in the same period the year before.
The NSPCC collected the figures from police forces across Britain on the number of sexual offences against under-18s. Figures returned by forces from England and Wales showed officers recorded an average of 15 internet-related sex crimes against children a day.
This is the second year officers have been required to 'cyber flag' any crime that involved the internet.
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless, who is visiting Belfast today, said victims of internet-related sex crimes were being left feeling "worthless, depressed and suicidal".
Speaking about the statistics of web-linked child abuse in Northern Ireland, he added: "These figures confirm our fears that offenders are exploiting the internet to target children for their own dark deeds.
"Children tell our Childline service they are being targeted online by some adults who pose as children and try to meet them, or persuade them to perform sexual acts on webcams, before blackmailing them.
"This terrifies them and can leave some feeling worthless, depressed, and suicidal.
"We cannot idly sit by knowing that more and more innocent young people are being harmed online.
"This worrying data leaves the Northern Ireland Assembly and the next UK Government with no choice but to urgently address this issue."
The NSPCC wants an independent regulator to hold social media companies to account and fine them where they fail to protect children.
It also called for "minimum standards" to be put in place for internet companies to safeguard children online, and said that youngsters need to be automatically offered default privacy settings by social media corporations to shield them from abusers.
Parents were also urged to have "frequent, open conversations" with their families about the internet and taking precautions against potential abusers.