THE number of children counselled by ChildLine about online sexual abuse more than doubled last year, new figures show.
The service, which is run by the charity NSPCC, carried out 2,842 counselling sessions across the UK – a rise of 168 per cent on the previous year.
ChildLine’s two Scottish bases in Aberdeen and Glasgow counselled 524 young people, a number the charity said was likely to be a “drop in the ocean”.
The figures come after Police Scotland promised to take a more “pro-active” approach to tackling the issue of child sexual exploitation amid warnings the advent of social media has made it easier for paedophiles to groom their victims and share abuse images online.
Elaine Chalmers, area manager for ChildLine in Scotland, said social networks were often the first step in offenders encouraging victims to other sites or to meet in person.
“The likelihood is that these figures are a drop in the ocean because groomed child victims often do not report abuse, and many young people don’t even recognise what they’re experiencing as illegal,” she said.
“It’s vital that we encourage children and young people to talk about what they do online and who they communicate with. The risks involved in online contact are heightened in cases where children and young people feel they have to keep their experiences secret.
“Where you uncover inappropriate contact with a child you must report it – for every instance we know about, there may be many more children at risk.”
ChildLine highlighted the case of a teenage girl who admitted it had initially been “really fun” to talk to older men online.
However, she said she began to be pestered to send naked pictures of herself, with some of the men even threatening to come and find her.
Appearing before the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee earlier this month, Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham said it was important for police to “go out and look for” paedophiles amid technological advances which had inadvertently aided abusers online.
He also highlighted the fact that, of 1,590 reported rapes handled by the police last year, around a quarter were against children.
In its submission to the committee, Barnardo’s Scotland said it was concerned the 2005 Protection of Children and Protection of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act had been “little used” to bring perpetrators to justice.
“We are concerned that child victims of sexual exploitation are not being afforded the protection of the criminal justice system as they should be,” the charity said.
The charity said the act had created a new child grooming offence, as well as new offences relating to sexual services of children and child pornography.
However, from a range of new offences created, there had been a total of 42 prosecutions, the charity said.
A UK-wide operation by the National Crime Agency earlier this year saw more than 600 suspected paedophiles arrested as part of a crackdown on those viewing child pornography online. Doctors, teachers and former police officers were among those arrested.