The Home Secretary has said she is appalled by the revelation that children, one as young as six, have been sexually groomed or assaulted after contact with adults on over-18 dating sites.
Her comments come in response to a Sky News investigation, which revealed more than 70 young people circumvented age verification processes to access popular apps like Grindr and Tinder.
Priti Patel, who has confirmed an additional £30m to tackle online exploitation, said dating companies must do more to keep children off their sites.
According to the official police documents, the youngest victim was just six years old – a boy in the Durham Constabulary area who was sexually groomed after contact on gay dating app Grindr.
Other cases included:
- A nine-year-old boy in Staffordshire who was sexually assaulted by an adult he met on Tinder
- A 12-year-old-girl, also in Staffordshire, who was raped by a man she met on another dating app
- An 11-year-old girl who was coerced into sending naked pictures of herself over an app in Gwent
- A 12 year-old-girl in Hertfordshire who was groomed for sex after contact on Grindr
The Home Secretary said: “I think this is just absolutely appalling, I really do.. what we are seeing are young children now being preyed upon by people, by predators with obviously the wrong motives and the wrong motivation, we must do more. We must do more.
“That means the technology companies themselves have to step up and I think this is more than just age verification, we need standards from technology companies, they need to absolutely make sure that young people are not just falling through age verification systems and processes, we’ve got to protect them.
“I think it is the responsibility, as technology evolves, for the companies to do much more and to do something else, which is to work with the law enforcement agencies, our police officers and even the government as well.
“To work with us to make sure that the protections are put in place, no child should be subject to abuse or become a victim of some of the most appalling sexual abuse and sexual crimes through something like a dating app or technology.”
Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk police and national lead on child protection, said current verification systems were simply not robust enough.
“There needs to be far greater verification so you can actually demonstrate and prove who you are and demonstrate that you are on there with the knowledge of a guardian,” He said.
“I don’t believe it is morally responsible that you can establish a system or a domain where you then know that a child is potentially at risk of being abused or is being abused and simply turn around and say to police, ‘what is taking place within that room is not our responsibility’, I think it is.”
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has long campaigned for better protection of youngsters online.
Andy Burrows, the charity’s head of child safety online policy, said: “It is really easy for children and young people to be able to download sites like Tinder or Grindr onto their smartphones.
“The age verification processes really are just a tick box exercise and when we are talking about such highly sexualised platforms, these are just unsuitable sites for children and young people and that is why we do need to see action.”
Just as some children are circumventing age verification checks to access over-18 apps, adults are doing the same to trawl teenage dating sites.
Sky News was easily able to create a false profile to access one popular teen site, which was supposed to be restricted to teenagers aged between 13 and 19.
Several profiles of grown men were found on the site, including one man happy to admit he was “not 19, older”.
In his profile, he said he was looking for “Chill girls” and said “This looks entertaining. You can ask me anything, no matter how crazy, sinister or wrong it is.”
Mr Bailey said action was in the pipeline if dating app and social media companies do not tighten up their vetting and monitoring processes.
He told Sky News: “I’m reassured that actually there are a number of significant pillars that are coming into place here, that is going to make a difference, so our response, across law enforcement is the most robust anywhere in the world at this time.
“We have appealed to the people responsible for these apps to actually take their social and moral responsibility far more seriously.
“I think the online harms white paper will now bring about a regulator, it will bring about a responsibility upon those companies to have a duty of care.
“I think the companies will have to start thinking very differently about the response they are putting in place.”
Tinder told Sky News it takes its duty of care seriously.
A spokesperson for the dating app said: “Tinder is for users 18+, and we use a network of industry-leading moderation tools – and spend millions of dollars annually – to prevent and remove minors from our app.
“We are constantly working to improve our processes to prevent underage access, and always work with law enforcement, where possible, to protect our users as well. We don’t want minors on Tinder. Period.”
Meanwhile, Grindr has previously said: “Any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behaviour is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service.
“Our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”
The government’s £30m boost to tackle online child exploitation will include more resources for the UK’s Child Abuse Image Database (CAID), a resource that provides law enforcement agencies with tools to search seized devices for indecent images of children.
New funds will also be made available to explore adding enhanced artificial intelligence (AI) tools to the system, including voice analytics and age estimation systems.
The government has today confirmed it will also be co-hosting a major child sexual abuse summit in December in Africa to drive the international response to a rapidly growing problem, which is global in scale.
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