A COUNCILLOR has called for better policing of big social media companies to protect children, especially young girls, from online grooming.

New figures obtained via FOI suggest girls are the victim of more than three-quarters of online grooming crimes in Essex.

Southend Labour councillor Matt Dent has joined children’s charity the NSPCC in calling on new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to strengthen proposals in the draft Online Safety Bill to ensure girls are properly protected from online sexual abuse.

Essex Police recorded 266 offences in which an adult engaged in sexual communication with a child under 16 between July 2020 and March, according to an FOI conducted by the NSPCC.

The gender of the victim was recorded in 185 crimes – 145 (78 per cent) of whom were female, and 40 male.

The data also shows that where the age of the female victim was recorded, 98 were aged between 12 and 15, and 33 under 11.

The Online Safety Bill aims to protect children online and remove harmful content. If the bill makes it through Parliament, social media networks may face fines if they do not take down harmful content.

Cllr Dent said: “I have concerns about the draft Online Safety Bill. It doesn’t do enough, in my view, to require the big social media companies to actually act on harmful content and individuals online.

“While it’s certainly a thorny issue. The statistics in Essex show we do need to get to grip with this. The bill in its current form to my mind doesn’t cut it.

“In terms of child protection, Southend Council works on that with Essex Police and other agencies and it’s certainly something that we grapple with, but realistically in order to solve this it requires national leadership and legal frameworks, which at the moment is wanting.”

The NSPCC is also calling on the Government to beef up the bill.

It said the Online Safety Bill, currently being examined by MPs and peers, must be strengthened to stop grooming and abuse spreading between apps, disrupt abuse at the earliest possible stage and hold senior managers to account.

Anna Edmundson, head of policy, said: “One of the primary functions of the Online Safety Bill is to keep all children – including girls – safe when they go online.

“Now, the new Culture Secretary has the opportunity to fix the substantive weaknesses in the legislation so it does just that.”

A Government spokesman said: “Our new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.

“Failing firms will face hefty fines or have their sites blocked, and we will have the power to make senior managers criminally liable for failing to protect children.”

An Essex Police spokeperson added: "We’ve safeguarded 316 children over the course of the last 12 months.

"So far this year we’ve identified 264 suspects. In the last 12 months we have achieved positive outcomes for a total of 202 offences.

"We work together with schools and colleges across the county and our officers are embedded throughout these educational establishments.

"We also complete joint training with teachers to prevent and detect this harmful crime.

"Officers from our Crime and Public Protection Command have specially trained investigators who are able to identify offenders and use proactive methods to arrest them.

"We also urge parents and carers to be very well informed of the latest information and speak to their children about the signs and risks.

"For more information, please go to: https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/child-abuse-and-neglect/online-abuse."

Essex Police advice for parents when talking to their children about being safe online:

  • encourage them to talk to you about how they use the internet and show you what they do - make sure they know they can come to you for advice
  • have an agreement in place and set boundaries for their internet use, such as when and where they can use their devices and for how long
  • check age ratings that come with games, apps, films and social networks to confirm whether they’re suitable
  • activate parental controls on your home network and all devices including mobile phones and game consoles
  • safe settings can also be activated on sites such as Google, YouTube and iPlayer
  • get to grips with the blocking and report functions on any gaming sites and make sure they know how to use them too
  • make sure they're aware of the risks of sharing images online and that you both know how to remove content should you need to