The National Crime Agency has expanded its education programme to include four and five-year-olds for the first time.
A series of animations has been launched to teach children as young as four about the dangers of online grooming.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) has expanded its ThinkUKnow education programme to include four-to-seven-year-olds using an animated series called Jessie and Friends.
It comes amid soaring numbers of referrals to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a US-based body to which the tech industry reports online child sex abuse material.
In 2018, the global figure was 18.4m, with more than 113,000 referrals from the UK. Increasing levels of sophistication, eliciting of photos and blackmailing is being used by offenders.
About 400 people a month are arrested in the UK on charges related to child sex abuse and exploitation. About 500 children a month are safeguarded.
The NCA says four and five-year-olds are unlikely to be interacting with individuals online on their own at that age, but the videos will help to educate children early without using scare tactics.
None of the videos will include scenarios with sex offenders.
Rob Jones, NCA director, said: “We are already asking, ‘How did it get this bad?’. So in 10 years’ time we must be able to look back and see that we stopped it from getting worse.
“Arresting offenders is not the only answer to the problem.”
Three clips have been produced which encourage children to speak to a trusted adult when they see something which makes them feel uncomfortable.
It also tells them to be careful about sharing photos online and to take care when using chat features in online games.
Resource packs include a story book for each episode, and will be made available for schools and parents.
Kate Burls, head of education in the NCA’s CEOP programme, said their investigations show more offenders are targeting young children.
Investigators have said there is a “disturbing” increase in offenders contacting pre-verbal and very young children.
According to a recent Ofcom report, 19% of three-to-four-year-olds and 43% of five-to-seven-year-olds own their own tablets.
The report said 52% of three-to-four-year-olds and 82% of five-to-seven-year-olds go online for an average of nine hours or more each week.
Andy Burrows, NSPCC associate head of child safety online, said: “We know that children as young as five are being groomed online.
“Therefore any tools, like the ones produced by the NCA, which can educate children from an early age and equip them with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe are a positive step.
“However, tech giants also need to take responsibly for protecting children. The NSPCC’s Wild West Web campaign is calling on government to bring in an independent regulator that enforces a legal duty of care to children on social networks with tough consequences if they put children at risk.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Protecting children from sexual exploitation is a priority of this government and we fully support educating children at a young age about some of the dangers of the web.
“The government will shortly be setting out the Online Harms White Paper which will set out how we will go further to protect vulnerable users.”
Sexual abuse of young, pre-school children can leave them feeling afraid and confused and other difficult feelings which are hard for them to make sense of and communicate to adults around them.
Indicators of sexual abuse in young children
Children of a certain age aren’t able to verbalise or fully communicate abuse, so signs/indicators are helpful tools for parents/carers to be aware of, as they can help identify that a child may have been sexually abused.
These signs/indicators shouldn’t be viewed in isolation as many can be ‘normal’ behaviours that a young child may display as part of their developmental progression, any signs or indicators should be assessed by a trained professional within the child’s wider social and family context, and never in isolation.
If you are or have been concerned that a child may have been or is being sexually abused, possible signs and indicators to be aware of are:
- changes in personality, e.g., a normally outgoing child may become very passive and compliant, or a usually calm child may become more demanding and aggressive
- regression, e.g., a toilet trained child may begin soiling themselves or wetting the bed
- avoiding being alone with adults
- becoming withdrawn/unable to engage in play
- fear of being left alone or separated from their parent(s) or carer(s)
- age inappropriate knowledge of sexual behaviours or sexual language
- changes in appetite
- disturbed sleep patterns and nightmares
- pain or irritation around the genital area
- fear of getting undressed
- uncharacteristic aggressive behaviour
This a complicated area and it is difficult to identify if a young child has been sexually abused, but if you have any concerns – even if you’re unsure – it is important that you seek help and support.
If you have immediate concerns for a child’s safety dial 999.
For help, advice and guidance about a child’s safety contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.
Coping with the trauma of sexual abuse
After discovering sexual abuse, family members will be struggling with a range of feelings, and it is likely to be useful for them to have support in bearing them.
Despite the negative impact that sexual abuse has, a warm, loving, empathic approach towards children can make a huge difference in helping them to recover. Children affected by abuse may also need support in processing their feelings about what has happened.
In these situations, many families of offenders will also be facing difficult feelings and issues, such as shock, stigma and shame. Although, negative feelings towards offenders are likely to be strong, their families still deserve a sensitive and supportive response.
Help and support
If you have been affected by the issues in this news story, talking to someone can help – you can get support from the NSPCC Helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 800 500. If you have immediate concerns for a child’s safety please dial 999.
If you are a child or young people who is worried or concerned about the issues in this news story you can contact ChildLine for free on 0800 1111 or visit the ChildLine website. ChildLine counsellors are available 24 hours a day for children to talk to whatever their worry. Children and young people can talk to ChildLine in confidence, meaning what you say stays between you and ChildLine.
Any adult who thinks they have a sexual interest in children and wants help can contact the Lucy Faithful Foundation via their website or by calling 0808 1000 900.