The PSNI have recorded over 2000 child abuse image offences in the last five years, it has been revealed.
The number of offences relating to possessing, taking, making, and distributing child abuse material in Northern Ireland totalled 2,217 between the years 2016/17 – 2021/21, according to figures obtained by NSPCC Northern Ireland.
Offences recorded by police UK-wide passed 100,000, with the children’s charity saying social media is being used by groomers as a conveyor belt to produce and proportion child abuse images on an industrial extent.
They additional that the issue of young people being groomed into sharing images of their own abuse has become pervasive.
The child protection charity is urging the Stormont Executive to work with the UK Government to seize the opportunity to strengthen the Online Safety Bill, so it results in decisive action that disrupts the production and spread of child abuse material on social media.
The NSPCC says that behind every offence could be multiple victims and images, and children will continue to be at risk of an unheard of extent of abuse unless the draft legislation is considerably strengthened.
Ahead of a report by Parliamentarians who scrutinised the draft Online Safety Bill expected next week, the NSPCC, which has been at the spotlight of campaigning for social media regulation, set out a five-point plan to strengthen the legislation so it effectively prevents online abuse.
The charity’s online safety experts said the Bill currently fails to address how offenders organise across social media, doesn’t effectively tackle abuse in private messaging and fails to keep up top managers liable for harm or give children a voice to balance the strength of industry.
The NSPCC is also basic of the industry response to child abuse material .
A Facebook whistle-blower recently revealed Meta apply a return-on-investment rule to combatting child abuse material and don’t know the true extent of the problem as the company “doesn’t track it”.
Separately, research by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection has raised concerns about whether some platforms have consistent and effective course of action to takedown child abuse images, with some companies pushing back on removing abuse images of children as young as ten.
Natalie Whelehan, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at NSPCC Northern Ireland, 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 proportion images on an industrial extent.
The Government recognises the problem and has produced a landmark opportunity with the Online Safety Bill. But our assessment is that the legislation needs strengthening in clear and specific ways if it is to fundamentally address the complicate character of online abuse and prevent children from coming to avoidable harm.
“At NSPCC Northern Ireland we will be calling on Northern Ireland Executive to work closely with the UK Government to strengthen the Online Harms Bill, and to prioritise fully implementing their Online Safety Strategy and Action Plan without any further delay.”
The NSPCC’s five-point plan lays out where the Online Safety Bill must be strengthened to:
- Disrupt well-established grooming pathways: The Bill fails to tackle convincingly the ways groomers commit abuse across platforms to produce new child abuse images. Offenders adventure the design features of social media sites to contact multiple children before moving them to risky livestreaming or encrypted sites. The Bill needs to be strengthened to require platforms to clearly risk estimate for cross platform harms.
- Tackle how offenders use social media to organise abuse: The Bill fails to address how abusers use social media as a shop window to advertise their sexual interest in children, make contact with other offenders and post digital breadcrumbs as a guide for them to find child abuse content. Recent whistle-blower testimony found Facebook groups were being used to ease child abuse and signpost to illegal material hosted on other sites.
- Put a duty on every social media platform to have a named manager responsible for children’s safety: To focus minds on child abuse every platform should be required to appoint a named person liable for preventing child abuse, with the ultimate threat of criminal sanctions for product decisions that put children in harm’s way.
- Give the regulator more effective powers to combat abuse in private messaging: Private messaging is the frontline of child abuse but the regulator needs clearer powers to take action against companies that don’t have a plan to tackle it. Companies should have to risk estimate end-to-end encryption plans before they go ahead so the regulator is not left in the dark about abuse taking place in private messaging.
- Give children a funded voice to fight for their interests: Under current proposals for regulation children who have been abused will get less statutory protections than bus passengers or Post Office users. There needs to be provision for a statutory body to represent the interests of children, funded by an industry levy, in the Bill.
The NSPCC are also mobilising supporters to sign an open letter to theUK Government asking the Culture Secretary to make sure children are at the heart of the Online Safety Bill.
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