Young people could be left at greater risk from online exploitation as families struggle to afford activities such as days out and holiday clubs this summer, children’s charities have warned.
The NSPCC said the cost of living crisis must not be allowed to “fuel another surge in abuse” as happened during the COVID pandemic, while Barnardo’s warned: “What starts in the virtual world can quickly move to in-person sexual and criminal exploitation.”
Barnardo’s said its polling of 1,191 parents and carers across Great Britain suggested almost half (46%) will struggle to find the money for family holidays and days out.
A quarter (26%) said they cannot pay for activities like childcare and holiday clubs, and one in five (21%) said they will not be able to afford time off work to spend with their children.
In its survey of 729 children aged 11 to 17 years old, 71% said they will spend more time online during the holidays than during term time, and 8% said they will meet up with people they have met online this summer.
Around 13% said they already communicate with people they have met online but do not know in person.
The charity’s chief executive, Lynn Perry, said that while any child can be at risk of exploitation, some are particularly so in the context of families not being able to afford organised and supervised activities.
She said: “During the pandemic, we saw a rise in new forms of exploitation – with children increasingly groomed, recruited and exploited over social media, chat rooms and on gaming platforms.”
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“Whilst all children, regardless of age, location or background can be vulnerable to sexual and criminal exploitation, with many families struggling to afford the basics, let alone activities for their children during the holidays, some children are particularly at risk this summer,” she added.
“We know exploitation can be life-changing, often leaving children traumatised and feeling alone.”
The charity’s senior policy adviser for childhood harms, Jess Edwards, said: “It’s not a child’s responsibility to identify the presence of exploitation in their lives.
“Families can look out for physical signs like unexplained injuries or infections, emotional changes, mental health issues, behavioural changes, displaying more sexualised behaviour, bodily discomfort, or having things such as money or expensive items when you don’t know how they have bought them.”
The issue has been raised as the government’s Online Safety Bill makes its way through parliament.
The proposed law – which aims to regulate internet content to help keep users safe, and also to make companies responsible for the material – has been repeatedly held up over concerns about its impact on freedom of expression.
Rani Govender, the NSPCC’s senior child safety online policy officer, said: “Offenders ruthlessly exploited the conditions created by the pandemic to target young people who were spending more time online and we cannot allow the cost of living crisis to fuel another surge in abuse.”
She added: “It is crucial that the long-awaited Online Safety Bill is as effective as possible in protecting children and holds senior tech managers personally liable if their sites continue to facilitate child sexual abuse taking place at record levels.”
Meanwhile, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) referred to its previous research which found a 9% increase last year compared with 2021 in child sex abuse material containing images and videos made or shared via an internet device with a camera – stating that often in these scenarios a child has been groomed, coerced and encouraged online.
IWF chief executive Susie Hargreaves said: “Parents must know the dangers and have open and frank discussions with their children. Even one good, quality conversation can help prevent this sort of abuse continuing.”