Pedophiles are starting to use virtual reality headsets to view images of child abuse, crime records suggest.
Children’s charity NSPCC obtained data from police forces in England and Wales, including details on which social media sites or types of technology were mentioned in reported crimes.
Police recorded 30,925 offenses involving lewd images of children in 2021/22, the highest number ever recorded by forces in England and Wales.
Among them, a social media or gaming site was logged in 9,888 times – including Snapchat 4,293 times, Facebook 1,361; Instagram 1,363 and WhatsApp 547.
VR has been recorded eight times by police forces in crime reports, the first time this technology has been specifically mentioned, the NSPCC said.
The NSPCC is calling for changes to the Online Safety Bill to create a child safety advocate to represent the interests of children and families.
He also wants the law changes to mean senior executives of social media sites are held criminally liable if children are exposed to preventable abuse.
NSPCC Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “These new figures are incredibly alarming, but they only reflect the tip of the iceberg of what children are experiencing online.
“We hear from young people feeling helpless and let down as online sexual abuse threatens to become normal for a generation of children.
“By creating a child safety advocate who stands up for children and families, the government can ensure that the online safety bill systematically prevents abuse.
“It would be inexcusable if we were still catching up on the pervasive abuse that has been allowed to proliferate on social media five years from now.”
A government spokesman said: “The protection of children is at the heart of the online safety law and we have included tough, world-leading measures to achieve this, while ensuring that the interests of children and families are represented through the Children’s Commissioner.
“Virtual reality platforms are in scope and will be forced to protect children from exploitation and remove vile child abuse content. If companies fail to address this material effectively, they will face steep fines and could be subject to criminal penalties against their executives.”
A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, said it reports child sexual exploitation to the international child protection organization, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
He added: “This horrific content is banned on our apps and we report cases of child sexual exploitation to the NCMEC.
“We lead the industry in the development and use of technology to prevent and remove this content, and are working with police, child safety experts and industry partners to address this societal problem.
“Our work in this area is never done and we will continue to do everything we can to keep this content out of our apps.”