The internet was used to commit one-fifth (20 per cent) of all Scottish sex crimes, with an increasing variety of apps and websites being used including Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
According to Cybercrime in Scotland: A Review of the Evidence, Facebook was the most commonly mentioned social media vehicle used for cyber sex crime. It also quoted studies suggesting that “much sexual harm to children was committed via apps on smartphones and tablets”.
It expressed concern that “some of the most popular social media networks used by children are recurring vehicles for sexual crime”, with parental controls either not being used or being overcome.
Although online sexual crimes tended to involve “non-contact offending”, the report warned that the internet may be a “precursor” to crimes such as rape and sexual assault.
The research found an increase in internet use to commit “other sex crimes”, a category of sex offence used by Police Scotland to describe behaviour not covered by rape/attempted rape, sexual assault or crimes associated with prostitution.
The internet was involved in 38 per cent of “other sex crimes” in 2013-14 increasing to 51 per cent in 2016-17.
Seventy four per cent of the victims of crimes in these categories were under 16 and 83 per cent were under 20. Victims had an average age of 14.
The research found that 26 per cent of the perpetrators of crimes in these categories were under the age of 16 and 57 per cent were under 20.
The internet was used as a means to commit at least 20 per cent of all sexual crimes recorded by the police in Scotland in 2016-17.
The three crimes with the highest rate of internet use acts were indecent photos of children (98 per cent cyber-enabled in 2016-17), viewing sexual activity or images (71 per cent) and communicating indecently (58 per cent).
The research estimated that the number of cyber-enabled instances of those crimes doubled between 2013-14 and 2016-17 to a total of 2,224.
Yesterday Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said described the findings as “alarming”.
“The fact so many of these victims are children is something that needs urgent and radical attention,” Mr Kerr said. “I hope the Scottish Government outlines its intention to ensure those guilty of such offences are punished heavily.”
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson, Daniel Johnson, said: “It is incredibly worrying to see this huge rise in the number of sexual cybercrimes involving children and young people. They need to be safe when using the internet, and it is vital that they are given the tools and the information they need to keep themselves safe.
“There are so many opportunities for young people through the internet, but also so many risks. Parents and teachers must be given the skills to guide children and young people through the potential pitfalls.”
On cybercrime more generally, the study found evidence that online offences were under reported to the police and other authorities.
Police Scotland only dealt with 30 incidents of computer misuse – which covers hacking and virus attacks – in 2016-17, according to recorded crime data.
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said: “When we know cybercrime, sexual cybercrime and fraud is on the rise, it is worrying to hear the Scottish Government admit it has a long way to go to understanding how to deal with it. Where personal data is only a click of a button away, the authorities must ensure they are one step ahead.
“A freedom of information request from the Scottish Liberal Democrats recently revealed that the Scottish Government doesn’t know how many cybercrime experts it will need in the next five years. If cybercrime is to be prevented, resources need to be put in place now.”
Justice secretary Michael Matheson said: “This report shows how the internet and new technologies can impact on the scale and nature of criminal activity across Scotland. While fraud, online sexual crimes and computer misuse such as hacking might be the most obvious examples of cyber crime, we must remain vigilant at all times.
“Police Scotland are committed to recruiting more civilian cyber specialists to ensure they have the right mix of skills in place to counter the threat posed by cybercrime.”