‘Toxic’ online culture fuelling rise in sexual assaults on children by other children, police warn

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‘Toxic’ online culture fuelling rise in sexual assaults on children by other children, police warn
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‘Toxic’ online culture fuelling rise in sexual assaults on children by other children, police warn

‘Toxic’ online culture fuelling rise in sexual assaults on children by other children, police warn

Observer investigation in England and Wales reveals 40% increase in reports of sexual assaults and rapes where both victim and perpetrator were under 18

An alarming rise in sexual assaults on children by other children is being fuelled by access to a “toxic” online culture, Britain’s most senior child protection officer has warned, as an Observer investigation revealed a sharp increase in abuse by under-18s reported to police.

Police records of rape, sexual assaults and incidents of abuse carried out by young children in England and Wales have all seen a significant increase since the Covid pandemic. The Observer has also uncovered an 81% rise in reported incidents that took place on school property. One leading expert said the problem had reached “alarming levels”.

In an interview with the Observer, Ian Critchley, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for child protection, said that access to violent pornography and misogynistic content via smartphones was contributing to a “hugely concerning” trend. He called on social media firms to do more as he warned of the new dangers brought by artificial intelligence and the growth of “sextortion” among young people, where they are coerced into taking compromising pictures of themselves.

“While adults continue to always cause the greatest harm to a child, the recorded crime being committed over the last few years is a hugely concerning issue,” he said.

“The increased use of smart devices by young people, the access to harmful material [and] to violent pornography,” he added, has “become normalised now in the behaviour of young people.

Ultimately, we have tech companies who are making billions of pounds, who are influencing the behaviour of young people – who are putting profit before the impact that this is having on society.”

Young people are being coerced into taking explicit pictures of themselves. Photograph: Michele Pevide/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Critchley said that implementation of the Online Safety Act, designed to clamp down on harmful content, was crucial. “That’s having a huge impact on generation norms,” he said. “As well as the sharing of images, we’re also seeing an increased number of reports of ‘sextortion’.”

He said that he continued to have concerns about the use of end-to-end encryption, adding: “Ultimately, we need to change the online environment from one that has become so toxic and so harmful for young people, to one that actually gives them a safe space.”

The Observer examined data covering 39 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales released under the Freedom of Information Act. Between 2019 and 2022, it suggested a 40% increase in reports of sexual assaults and rapes where both the alleged victim and perpetrator were under 18. There was a 33% increase in rape reports and a 26% increase in reports where the allegation was against a child aged under 10.

While forces differed in the breadth of information they shared, the responses showed that reports of sexual abuse, rape and some other sexual offences had increased from 20,000 in 2019 to more than 28,000 in 2022. More than 2,700 incidents were recorded as taking place on school property in 2022.

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