Belfast Telegraph

Cyber-sex crimes against children up 268% in Northern Ireland

Warning: Jim Gamble
Warning: Jim Gamble
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

The number of cyber sex-crimes against children has soared by a shocking 268% in the last four years with almost five incidents now being recorded each week here.

In 2018/19 a total of 243 recorded sexual offences against children were flagged by the PSNI as having an online element. In 2014/16 there were just 66 offences.

In total, 12% of all 2,036 recorded sexual offences against children last year were cyber-enabled, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC.

The figures are revealed just days before the UK Government closes its consultation on its Online Harms White Paper, which proposes to introduce an independent regulator to enforce a legal duty of care on tech companies to keep users safe on their platforms.

And, according to former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and ex-PSNI officer Jim Gamble, the numbers are only the tip of the iceberg.

"It's a problem that's simply not going to go away," Mr Gamble warned.

"The PSNI have to take some credit as they have bucked the trend in continuing to invest in the public protection unit, but this is a global issue and when no one is being caught there is no deterrent.

"There needs to be investment in a coherent strategy and we need to be taking the issue directly to children from as early an age as possible.

"What we have is the Government being keen on low cost and making 'feel safe' announcements. They make the promises people want to hear, to block porn sites for under 18s, but they're going for what's easy because it looks good.

"The idea of putting in a regulator is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It's no good to a parent if their child had been harmed and the site involved is fined.

"We need a licensing system for social media sites, a fee based on advertising revenue from the territory they're active in.

"Government headlines need to be backed up by finance and targeting the sites this way, through enforcing ethical advertising on them, is the only way to do it.

"These sites are run as businesses and if there's a way of fining major brand names who advertise on these sites when they provide a platform for this sort of cyber sex-crime against children, then we have to hit them where it hurts".

Chief Inspector Gary McDonald of the PSNI's Public Protection Branch said that technology has brought increased risk and a new style of policing.

"There is greater accessibility to a growing number of devices year on year but there is improved police recording techniques for this type of offending," he said.

"This year to date we have carried out over 120 searches and made a significant number of arrests relating to various offences including possession, making and distributing indecent images and sexual communication with a child.

"Our message is very clear. You leave a digital footprint when you are downloading, viewing, making indecent images of children or when you engage in sexual communication online with a child.

"We will catch you and the repercussions are far-reaching."

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