As schools closed during the coronavirus lockdown, disturbing headlines emerged: 300,000 UK paedophiles were potentially ready to exploit the disruption to target children.
With millions of kids at home, bored and often glued to their mobiles and tablets, it seemed reasonable to fear an increase in online grooming. But is it happening?
The 300,000 figure came from the National Crime Agency, which said it predated the coronavirus outbreak. The NCA told me they didn’t have data showing a rise in the targeting of children. Buried in The Independent’s coverage of the story was this quote: “since schools closed, the number of child safety concerns reported through the Child Exploitation and Online Protection command (CEOP) website has stayed largely the same” (CEOP is part of the NCA).
I also asked child protection charity the NSPCC and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which partly works to support those at risk of sex offending, but neither responded with data showing an increase in activity.
The Internet Watch Foundation, a body partly funded by tech companies that scours the Internet for child sexual abuse images, didn’t have figures either – although their annual report on Monday (compiled on the pre-coronavirus era of course) is expected to show a rise in the number of images found, particularly those depicting pre-pubescent children.
Finally I sent Facebook messages to one of the “paedophile hunter” groups (many of which are unwilling to talk to journalists), who often create online accounts pretending to be children in order to detect groomers, and sometimes stage controversial stings leading to the suspect’s arrest. They told me they had not seen a rise in reports of grooming.
All these bodies are (rightly) concerned about the risk and keen to urge parents and guardians to be on the lookout for signs of danger. In terms of hard data, however, there’s short supply.
One revealing set of numbers comes from a UK tech company that tries to monitor children’s behaviour on mobile devices. SafeToNet installs a special keyboard on consenting kids’ phones and tablets, which looks out for keywords, as well as tracking how they communicate (the hastiness with which they reply to messages, for example). It’s fitted on around 100,000 devices in the UK and Germany.
The company saw UK sexting levels more than double in the four weeks following lockdown in the UK, compared with the previous month. Sexting (which SafeToNet defines as “sexually explicit language used with intent, including sexual comments or compliments; overly suggestive or coercive language relating to sexual topics”) has dropped off slightly in the last two weeks, but is still way above pre-lockdown levels.
The problem is, SafeToNet have no way of knowing to what extent the sex chat is consensual or coercive. It’s not unfeasible to imagine children socially isolated from their girlfriends and boyfriends simply switching to different ways to express their desire.
Meantime, those concerned about the grooming risk should take a look at the NSPCC’s useful guide to the signs here.