Police warn Milton Keynes parents to monitor their children's use of internet as online sex abuse soars throughout force area
Parents must take more steps to monitor their children's use of the internet, police warned today as it was revealed child sex abuse in the Thames Valley has rocketed by more than 90 per cent since lockdown.
Over the past 12 months, police in the region have seen referrals from the National Crime Agency rise by a staggering 93 per cent, part of a wave of online abuse sparked by the pandemic.
Thames Valley Police have made 31 arrests, all at residential addresses, and seized more than 276 items and safeguarded 32 children from abuse - all just in March.
Detective Inspector Jon Axford, of the force's Paedophile Online Investigation Team (POLIT), said: "The figures would suggest that lockdown has contributed to it. We have seen a massive spike in last 12 months.
"It makes sense, people are spending a lot more time at home and when they are at home they are spending a lot more time online. Also, children themselves are spending a lot more time online during lockdown.
"I think another factor is that we are getting better at detecting this activity in the first place and as our detection methods get better, we are catching more offenders."
DI Axford said his team was working with forces around the globe to be at the forefront of protecting children and they are using new methods to protect children.
"Whenever we become aware of this type of activity online we are duty-bound to investigate it," he said.
Police across the country have been working with the National Crime Agency to crackdown on all areas of child sexual abuse, from those who groom children online and meet up with them for sexual encounters to those who abuse children and then share the images of what they have done online.
Police were today urging parents to take the opportunity that extra time at home provides to talk to their children about their internet usage.
DI Axford said parents must take an interest in what their children are doing online. It was very easy to allow their children free reign on a tablet or a laptop and assume that they were okay and to get on with it.
"It is incumbent on parents to have that active interest and those conversations with their children about what is actually going on online; what their privacy settings are, what their security settings are and to engage with them on a regular basis about the dangers they might face.
"Then, if the child does find themselves in a position they are not comfortable with or they need to get out of, they are comfortable in talking to their parents about it."
For the detective, it was the obvious signs which might be the telltale indication of something more worrying.
He said: "The first thing is the most obvious, people who are contacting them online who they don't actually know in the real world.
"It is perfectly normal for children to speak to other children on social media and on gaming sites. But, if they find somebody is trying to initiate communication with them who they don't know, that is the very first and most obvious warning sign.
"Why is this person communicating with me? Do they have any purpose? That really is the most obvious warning. When that happens parents really need to take action straightaway."
Police have found a wide range of offenders as they seek to crackdown on those dealing in images and abusing children in the dark corners of the internet.
DI Axford said most offenders his team dealt with end up in an area of material by being desensitised to mainstream pornography.
"A lot of people are exposed to pornography from an early age and they indulge in that activity for a number of years and become desensitised to it," he said.
"They then push the boundaries and get themselves into other areas of the internet which they may not have frequented previously and before they know it, they have got a real issue on their hands. That is what a lot of people report to us.
"At the other end of spectrum, you have got people who simply don't think they are doing anything wrong. They think it is a legitimate sexual urge and they act on it. They engage with other like-minded people online and it is self-affirming, they help convince each other they aren't doing anything wrong."
Det. Insp. Axford concluded with a strong message to any offenders.
"My main message to them is to think about the impact. Think about the impact on the children in those images. The likelihood is an offender will not know that child, in some cases they do but in the majority of cases, they do not know the child.
"Although they don't know that child, behind every single one of those images and videos there is a real-life child being abused, probably by somebody they trust and by engaging in this type of behaviour and sharing those images you are fueling demand for those images, raising the possibility of further children being abused.
"Even if you are not willing to think about the impact on the child that is being harmed, think about the potential outcome for yourself and your families.
"If you get arrested for this type of offence your life is completely turned upside down. You risk losing access to your children, you risk your marriage, you risk your job, you risk your mortgage, it has a massive impact. Think about what will happen when you are caught."