Paedophiles are using the internet to commit dozens of sex crimes against children every day, new figures show.
Police are recording a growing number of offences where social media, apps and online gaming are being used to contact and groom young victims.
The number of child sex abuse offences linked to the internet has doubled in four years, from just over 4,000 in 2015-16 to 8,224 in 2018-19 – an average of 22 every day.
The figures were revealed as home secretary, Sajid Javid, prepared to announce a new cross-government strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation.
The NSPCC said the number did not reveal the true extent of abuse because of variation in how police record online elements of crimes.
A total of 40 out of 44 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland provided the charity with data on cyber-related abuse against under-18s, including online grooming, sexual communication with a child and rape.
The most common age of victims was 13, but figures showed that almost 200 offences were committed against children aged under 11, including babies.
The crimes are separate to indecent image offences, which have also hit record levels and sparked 400 arrests in England and Wales every week.
A boy who called Childline told how he was invited to the house of someone who messaged him through an online game.
“We’d been speaking for a few months so I thought I could trust him,” he said. “When I got to his house, he looked a lot older. I felt so scared so I ran to my friend’s house that lived nearby.”
Another boy, aged 14, said a woman in her twenties sent him a social media friend request and later made him do “sexual things” in a video call.
“She later showed me a video of what happened and threatened to report me if I didn’t talk to her,” he added. “I feel so ashamed about what has happened and I’m too scared to tell anyone.”
A 13-year-old girl was convinced to send sexual photos of herself to a man on Instagram, after she was led to believe that he was a teenage boy.
She said he threatened to share the images with her friends unless she sent more, adding: “I’ve blocked him but he keeps contacting me over the phone. I found out that he is actually an adult.”
Another girl, aged 14, was talking to who she believed was a “good-looking boy” on a dating app for teenagers when she was pressured into sending nude photos.
After she blocked him, he threatened to publish the messages and images they shared, leaving her feeling “guilty and disgusted”.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “Behind each offence is a child suffering at the hands of sex offenders and, worryingly, we know these figures are the tip of the iceberg. Far too many children are drowning in a sea of online threats so it’s now time for the next prime minister, whoever he may be, to cast out the life jacket.
“He must hold his nerve and introduce an independent regulator to protect children from the risks of abuse and harmful content.”
The figures come after a public consultation on the government’s online harms white paper, which proposes the creation of an independent regulator to enforce a legal duty of care on tech companies to keep users safe.
Police have been calling for firms to prevent the spread of child sex abuse images online, as they are “overwhelmed” by offences.
The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which offers programmes to help people stop viewing child sex abuse images, has seen a 24 per cent increase in calls to its helpline and a 40 per cent rise in website visits in the first three months of this year.
The charity has been awarded £600,000 government funding and Sajid Javid is expected to praise its preventative work in a speech to the NSPCC conference.
“The government must build on our existing work to stop all forms of child sexual abuse and support all victims and survivors,” the home secretary is expected to say. “So I’m pleased to announce that later this year we will publish a national strategy covering our comprehensive response to all forms of child sexual abuse.”
Last month, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection told The Independent that police cannot “arrest our way out of this problem” and suggested cautions could be given to offenders deemed not to pose a real-world risk.
“We are not able to target the high-risk and high-harm offenders because we are overwhelmed with volume referrals, therefore something has to change,” Chief Constable Simon Bailey said.
“That change needs to be a cross-system approach including educating children at home and school about the risks online, ensuring tech companies deliver on their responsibilities to prevent the uploading and sharing of images, and applying conditional cautions to low-risk offenders whereby they have to confront their offending behaviour.”