Suffolk’s children face a “sexting pandemic” – with explicit images being used to exploit, blackmail and shame victims, police say.
Charlotte Driver, cyber crime supervisor for Suffolk police, said children aged 12 were exchanging sexual images, unaware of the consequences.
She said photos were being sent between children who believed they were in a relationship – despite never meeting in person.
Some were uploaded to pornographic sites or accounts created to shame victims.
Mrs Driver said police had investigated at a Suffolk school where a year 11 boy had images sent by girls over several years. Some were just 12 when pictured.
“We’ve had a massive pandemic of sexting,” she said. “They send these pictures willingly, thinking they’re in a relationship, but what they don’t realise is once they’ve sent it they’ve lost all control.”
Sexting is among many social media challenges facing Suffolk Constabulary’s cyber crime unit.
The six months to August saw 47 investigations into sexting; 56 for grooming, 50 for malicious communications and 30 of online harassment. There were 70 suspects and 109 victims, under 16. The figures are rising.
An emerging trend is “fake accounts” on social media. “It’s a platform opened up with the sole purpose of hating a particular child,” Mrs Driver said.
Cyber crime investigator Liam Gilks said the effect on victims was “massive”. “One girl would not be left alone at school, wouldn’t walk home on her own and had to be picked up and dropped off each day,” he added.
Although no suicides have been linked to online bullying, the team discusses it during school visits.
Mrs Driver said self harming due to online bullying was also a “massive issue”. Children in care or with mental health issues, were “particularly susceptible”.
Nesta Reeve, clinical lead for Norfolk and Suffolk Wellbeing Services, said social media could damage a young person’s self-esteem because it provided an “endless supply of material to compare ourselves against”, much of it exaggerated.
However, social media’s impact is often dismissed by adults who do not understand its importance to young people. Mrs Driver said children “live their whole lives on social media”. “If you take away their phones, it’s like their lives are ended,” she said. “It’s the fear of missing out that drives them.”
Concern about social media has led schools to take action.
At Framlingham College, where phones are banned, headmaster Paul Taylor said in a speech: “Talking with parents here and with other heads, there is a sense the last 12-18 months have seen a step-change in the intensity of teenage obsession with – perhaps even addiction to – social media.”
Suffolk parents raised similar concerns. One mother, speaking anonymously, said she was “very aware of the unfenced social media world that can potentially leave anyone in a spin”. She said it was necessary to have a “constant dialogue” about social media.
But for many children, social media has become the barometer of popularity. Mr Gilks said it “all boils down to the numbers”, with young children interacting with hundreds of strangers.
“Vulnerable boys and girls are desperate for attention,” he added. “And they’re getting that attention but from the wrong people.”
Offenders coerce children to send explicit images then demand money or more pictures not to share them. Mrs Driver said “sextortion” was new but already widespread.
She said online policing posed unique challenges. Many victims do not recognise abuse and those who do are reluctant to report it.
Even when reported, Mrs Driver said the notoriously unregulated world of social media made investigations difficult as new platforms emerge all the time.
One foreign registered site has been described as “Tinder for teens”. “It’s as bad as it sounds,” said Mr Gilks. Mrs Driver said there were investigations “with hundreds of victims”. “It’s unacceptable social media companies are not taking greater responsibility for identifying illegal content,” she added.
Even online games have become a forum for abuse and grooming.
The dangers were exposed when Essex teenager Breck Bednar was groomed and murdered in a “sexual and sadistic” attack in 2014, by a killer he met online.
Mrs Driver said chat functions in games were an “open portal for abuse, grooming, and coercion”.
For the team, safeguarding is “paramount”. Much of its work is raising awareness. But with limited resources, the challenges are growing. “It’s mushroomed,” Mrs Driver said. “And it feels like they’re always one step ahead.”
The Stay Safe Online campaign launched in Suffolk this summer to expose and tackle the digital threats facing young people.
Launched with £100,000 from Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner, it is backed by Suffolk Community Foundation, Suffolk County Council, the University of Suffolk and Archant.
Professor Emma Bond at the University of Suffolk, has been researching online safety for more than a decade.
She said the problem of sexting was not new but had worsened with internet enabled phones. “Now these images are being shared by children before there’s even a relationship,” she said. “A lot of girls say they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If you don’t you’re a prude, if you do you’re a slut.”
Prof Bond said it was important to discuss internet issues with children to warn of dangers but also encourage responsibility. “Some of the biggest increases are in peer to peer abuse, so children are offenders as well as victims.”
Charities warn online abuse leads to self-harm, depression and isolation
Children’s charities in Suffolk and Essex reported a “dramatic” increase in online abuse.
Colin Peak, the NSPCC’s head of services for the East of England, said developments in social media had provided new platforms for bullying and exploitation.
“The technology has got ahead of our moral compass,” he said. “We don’t really know what we are setting ourselves up for.”
Mr Peak said the forms of abuse remained the same – grooming, and bullying – but there were now more opportunities for abusers to target their victims, which could be carried out “24/7”. He said it fuelled a “dramatic” rise in the number of calls to Childline about online abuse – up 88%.
Mr Peak raised particular concerns about applications that encouraged or required users to share their location, such as Pokemon Go and Snapchat Maps.
Sarah Simpkin, who manages The Children’s Society’s Essex-wide Children and Risk of Exploitation (CARE) service, said Facebook was still the online forum used most by perpetrators to groom children in Essex.
“We also hear about use of instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger,” she added.
She said the process usually started with a groomer’s friend request being accepted by the child and could “escalate quickly”.
While only 6.8% of grooming led to offline meetings, she said sex offenders could also get young people to send explicit photos or engage in sexual activity using a web cam “meaning perpetrators do not need to leave the house”.
“Any form of abuse can have a lasting effect on a young person affecting their mental health and emotional wellbeing,” she added. “From the various services we run in Essex, we know this can result in self harm, depression, isolation and a negative effect on education, to name a few.”
With the ever changing nature of social media, both charities say it is important for parents to talk to children to understand how they care communicating online and reduce risks. They also advise parents to be alert to changes in behaviour, such as becoming more secretive, withdrawn, or wearing different clothing.
For information visit NSPCC The Children Society or Internet Matters or call Childline on 0800 1111 to seek help. Referrals can be made by emailing The Children’s Society or calling 01245 493311.