The number of recorded online child sex offences across the Avon and Somerset Police Force area has risen by 29 percent in the past 12 months, new statistics have revealed.
Data obtained by the NSPCC revealed the number offences in 2019/20 rose to 112, compared to 87 the previous year – an increase of 29 per cent.
Avon and Somerset Police admitted it had seen a “continued increase” in child abuse and exploitation.
But force chiefs urged people not to be “unduly alarmed” by headline figures because the number of cases is “thankfully low”.
Across the south west, police forces logged 487 online child sex offences during 2019/20, a 45 per cent rise from the previous year’s figure of 334.
Data obtained by the NSPCC reveals 10,391 crimes were recorded by all 46 forces across England,Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands for 2019/20.
It is the first time the figure has passed the 10,000 mark.
Nationally, the offences increased by 16 per cent from the previous year where data from police forces is available and includes crimes wgich had a cyber element such as grooming, sexual assault and rape.
That takes the total number of recorded offences in the five years since it became mandatory to record whether a crime involved the internet to more than 37,000, which includes 1,575 offences logged by south west police forces.
However, this figure is likely to significantly understate the true extent of the problem due to potential under-recording by police forces of the role of the Internet and variation in the way forces log these crimes.
While the Freedom of Information data does not include the lockdown period, risks to children online increased and Childline counselling sessions on grooming went up.
The charity says this highlights the urgent need for the Government to push forward with the Online Harms Bill, which would place a legal Duty of Care on tech firms to protect children, enforced by an independent regulator.
The NSPCC is calling on the Government to publish its final plans before the end of the year, and get an Online Harms Bill on the statute book by the end of 2021.
Andy Burrows, NSPCC Head of Child Safety Online Policy, said: “These figures suggest that online abuse was already rising before lockdown and the risks to children have appeared to have spiked significantly since.
“It is almost 17 months since the Government’s original proposals for social media regulation were published and children continue to face preventable harm online.
“At the Hidden Harms Summit, the Prime Minister signalled he was determined to act.
“That’s why he needs to prioritise making progress on a comprehensive Online Harms Bill this autumn,and pass legislation by the end of 2021, that sees tech firms held criminally and financially accountable if they put children at risk.”
The Government published the Online Harms White Paper in April 2019 but are still yet to produce the final consultation response.
Detective Chief Inspector Larisa Hunt, lead for Operation Topaz, Avon and Somerset Police’s child sexual exploitation team said: “Over recent years, we have seen a continued increase in online child abuse and exploitation, both regionally and nationally.
“Our focus in Avon and Somerset is always on engaging with and supporting child victims of abuse and their families and disrupting offenders.
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“This remains our focus and we will always encourage parents, professionals and the public to report incidents of this nature to us.
“An increase in reporting shows families have confidence in us to report these cases to us so we can fully investigate and bring offenders to justice.
“We treat each victim as an individual and I want to reassure everyone we treat any reports with the utmost seriousness.
“While there is a public tendency to evaluate crimes by statistics, we would ask people not to be unduly alarmed by headline figures because the number of cases is thankfully low.
“The online world has come into its own this year, helping us to keep up with work,friends and family.
“There is no need to lock away your children’s screens or to scare them with stories about bad people.
“However, throughout the coronavirus pandemic we’ve been encouraging parents to make sure they speak to children about online safety, know who they are engaging with online and review parental controls on household devices.
“Children may be returning to classrooms, but we continue to ask parents to take these simple steps to help keep youngsters safe online.”
For more advice, visit www.thinkuknow.co.uk which was launched earlier this year by the National Crime Agency and Child Exploitation and Online Protection.
Adults concerned about a child online can contact the NSPCC Helpline confidentially for advice and support on 0808800 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org