Childline: 'Calls about child sexual exploitation, grooming, and online risk increased by 18 per cent in lockdown'
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‘We have built an online relationship, but have never met.
‘They told me how much they trust me and say ‘I love you’ all the time, which makes me feel I have to say it back.’
These are the words of a 13-year-old boy who contacted Childline over the summer, after feeling his online behaviour was getting out of hand.
The NSPCC's child sexual exploitation experts fear that he is one of many children in the UK who have been at greater risk of abuse during lockdown.
‘Recently this ‘friend’ asked me to watch things together online, including content that was explicit,” the boy continues.
‘I feel trapped, and am now am beginning to think about all the things they have said to me in the past, and realise it’s not right.’
According to Childline, counselling sessions such as these - about child sexual exploitation, grooming, and contact with a person who posed an online sexual abuse risk - increased by 18 per cent during lockdown.
Concern continues to grow among the NSPCC’s frontline teams that many more children may have suffered abuse during this time, without access to their normal avenues of support.
“Young people will often not recognise themselves as victims of exploitation, due to the nature of grooming,” says NSPCC Protect and Respect practitioner, Janet Abbott.
“That is why it’s so important that we empower them to recognise unhealthy relationships and perpetrators’ grooming behaviour.
“Maintaining regular sessions with young people throughout the pandemic has been a vital lifeline for some of the children and families our practitioners have been working with, ensuring that they are supported and can talk to someone they trust.
“As COVID-19 continues to impact on our lives, we will continue to adapt how we work on the frontline to help children cope and recover.”
Throughout the pandemic, practitioners for the NSPCC’s Protect & Respect service have continued to be there for children in the UK, supporting over 200 children at risk, despite not being able to deliver face-to-face support.
With children now back in school, the NSPCC has revealed it is essential that communities - schools, parents, and professionals - work together to spot the signs of abuse, enabling children to come forward, and making sure they have access to the right support when they need it.
Sadie Charlton, a practitioner at the NSPCC’s Sheffield city centre base, said: “Before lockdown, the young people I worked with were keen to explore healthy relationships, consent, and discuss pressure - pressure to act in a certain way online, pressure from sexual exploitation, and pressure from gangs.”
When lockdown happened, the group work in schools had to stop, but Sadie and her fellow practitioners were able to keep in contact, virtually, with some young people.
She added: “I think it was really crucial because a lot of these young people were online a lot more, using Houseparty and other apps to speak to friends, and meeting new people online.
“For me, Protect & Respect is about understanding their lived experience, being curious, asking questions to help them understand healthy boundaries, and - in an age-appropriate way - examining relationships, giving them the confidence to say no, that is not ok for me."