What started with a children’s online game ended in violent sexual assault. Danielle Armitage, now 25, has waived her anonymity to warn others about what happened to her when she was just 14 years old.
Her story is part of a growing problem. The number of reported cases of predators abusing children after contacting them online has risen 78% in just four years.
The new data comes from research by children’s charity the NSPCC which claims the government’s plans to regulate social media “fall significantly short” when it comes to protecting children from preventable online abuse.
For Danielle, her nightmare began while playing an interactive game in a virtual world. Here she met another player; John Graham Edwards claimed to be 16 years old but was in fact 49.
He used the game’s private chat room to prey on young girls like Danielle. Having children of his own, he knew the kind of things young teenagers talked about.
Danielle said: “He had a general gist of how teenagers, children and young adults of that age would talk. So, it felt normal to a point. And he’d talk to me about how my day was, general interests.
“And we just got to know each other in a personal, more in-depth relationship. Then he started being quite flirtatious.”
Eventually, they arranged to meet and Edwards abducted Danielle, taking her to a forest in his car.
She said: “I’d obviously looked over and frozen when I saw who this person was, and how old this person was… So he took me to a forest. He was very abrupt.
“He told me to take all my clothes off. And I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where I was. I knew I was quite far away from home. And I just did what he told me to do.
“So he told me to take my clothes off, and took photographs in the forest.”
Edwards later used fear and violence to sexually abuse her. A digital game had led to real-life horror.
Danielle’s story is becoming increasingly common.
Data obtained from 39 police forces in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Channel Islands, via freedom of information requests, shows the number of internet-linked sexual offences have increased by 78% in four years from 5,458 in 2016 to over 9,736 last year.
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The data follows on from grooming statistics that showed similar trends last month – however, these figures relate to any child sexual offences that the police marked with a cyber flag.
This could be rape or sexual assault – that involved an online element. The Home Office introduced the flagging system in 2015/16 as a way to track how the online world facilitates crimes.
The NSPCC wants to strengthen the government’s draft Online Safety Bill.
The charity says legislation must impose a duty on tech firms to tackle cross-platform risks, including the way groomers often target children on social networks then move across platforms to encrypted messaging and live streaming sites.
They also want to include criminal sanctions for companies that fail to keep children safe on their platform and a Named Persons Scheme, which would make senior managers at tech companies personally liable.
A new report from the NSPCC has examined the draft bill.
It notes that while the government is looking to introduce criminal sanctions against senior managers, the report states: “Sanctions would only apply in circumstances where a senior manager fails to comply with an information request, or knowingly seeks to mislead. Crucially, they would not apply in respect of actual product or safety decisions. As a result, there is no direct relationship in the Bill between senior management liability and the discharge by a platform of its safety duties.”
Report author, Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC told Sky News: “What we’d like to see is really comprehensive criminal sanctions, so if a senior manager consistently and repeatedly fails to ensure that their platform is fundamentally safe for children to use, then there should be the backstop of criminal sanctions.
“That will really focus the minds, it will ensure that in the chief executive’s offices, in senior managers’ offices here in the UK and across in California, child safety will no longer be an afterthought, it won’t be something that’s outside the company’s business models, it will be front and centre in the commercial decisions that they’re taking, and that’s really long overdue.”
He added: “We’ve seen the tech firms argue that this will somehow damage the UK as a place for them to do business, but let’s be clear, this isn’t a time for half measures or half solutions when we’re seeing the scale of online child abuse that we’re seeing, then the clear focus of government should be ensuring this legislation, this regulation works.”
Campaigners make comparisons to the city in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – regulation was strengthened with a shift in focus towards the personal responsibility and accountability of senior individuals within financial institutions.
That, says the NSPCC, is the only way to shift culture now in the tech companies.
Responding to this a government spokesperson told Sky News: “Our new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.
“Social media companies will need to remove child abuse content and prevent young people from being groomed or exposed to harmful material such as pornography or self-harm images.
“Failing firms will face hefty fines or have their sites blocked, and we will have the power to make senior managers criminally liable for failing to protect children.”
Danielle’s abuser was later convicted and imprisoned for abusing her and offences against two other children.
She recently discovered that when he was released he created a new online persona which he used to groom more children and was convicted again last year.
Danielle said: “It begins with these websites; it begins with these apps. It begins with the internet. So, I think they should be held accountable for part of this.”
It’s all too easy for the abusers. Campaigners say parental and child awareness, education in schools and regulation on the internet are all forms of child protection that urgently need to be improved.
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