The number of child sexual abuse image crimes recorded by UK police increased by a quarter last year, according to new data obtained by children’s charity the NSPCC.

The charity’s analysis of data gathered from 35 police forces through Freedom of Information requests found that 33,000 offences where abuse images were collected and distributed were logged by police during 2022/23.

The NSPCC said this figure was also up 79% since 2017/18, when the charity first called for online safety laws, and that 160,000 crimes had been recorded since then.

Social media apps
NSPCC said that Snapchat was flagged in almost half of the cases (Peter Byrne/PA)

Where the platform involved was discussed by police, the NSPCC said Snapchat was flagged in almost half of the cases, with the Meta-owned platforms of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp making up a quarter.

NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said the charity wants online safety regulator Ofcom to “act with greater ambition” with regards to the enforcement of the Online Safety Act, pushing tech companies to go even further than they will currently be required to under the new laws to further clamp down on child sexual abuse.

Ofcom is currently drawing up and consulting on codes of practice for online platforms to ensure they protect users, particularly children, from online harms.

Sir Peter said the NSPCC supported the “robust measures” being set out by Ofcom, but said the charity wanted to see the regulator begin work on a second version of the codes that will require companies to go further, including requiring firms to use technology to help identify and tackle grooming, sextortion and newly created child abuse images.

“It’s alarming to see online child abuse continue to rise, especially when tech companies should be acting to make their sites safe by design ahead of incoming regulation,” he said.

“Behind these crimes are children who have been targeted by adults who are able to organise and share sexual abuse with other offenders seamlessly across social media and messaging apps.

“The Online Safety Act sets out robust measures to make children fundamentally safer on the sites and apps they use so they can enjoy the benefits of a healthy online experience.

“Ofcom has been quick off the blocks but must act with greater ambition to ensure companies prioritise child safety in the comprehensive way that is so desperately needed.”

The charity has also repeated its warning about Meta’s plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across its messaging platforms, claiming it will prevent authorities from identifying offenders and safeguarding victims.

It called on Meta to pause its plans until the social media giant could prove child safety will not be compromised.

Meta has been contacted for comment.

In response to the NSPCC figures, a Snapchat spokesperson said: “Child sexual abuse is horrific and has no place on Snapchat.

“We use cutting-edge detection technology to find and remove this type of content, and work with police to support their investigations.

“Snapchat also has extra safety features for 13 to 17-year-olds, including pop-up warnings if they’re contacted by someone they don’t know.”