CO-ORDINATED action is needed to better protect children from online abuse including grooming, sexual harassment and distressing or inappropriate content. The call was made by charities working in Scotland including Childline, Barnardos Scotland and Children 1st, who said they were supporting an increasing number of children, young people and their families suffering due to online sexual abuse.

They said young people were exposed to harrowing or violent images, including those of child abuse. Others sought support after sharing intimate images of themselves and finding them shared online, while some of the young people had been blackmailed or threatened after sending pictures.

Others were groomed in abusive online relationships, sometimes by adults posing as young people. Almost one-quarter of UK teenagers report experiencing sexual harassment and inappropriate comments made on pictures or live streaming on social media platforms by their peers. Others have been harassed by predatory adults.

The latest call comes following the launch of a campaign by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) last week to encourage parents to be alert to the dangers of live streaming and warn their children of the risks.

It also comes days after a decision by YouTube to hire thousands of additional moderators to root out violent or inappropriate content, which is sometimes targeted at young children.

The UK Government has agreed to amend the Data Protection Bill to strengthen protections for children online, with amendments due to be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow.

According to Scottish Government statistics published in September there has been an increase in the proportion of “cyber enabled” sexual crime, up from 38 per cent of “other sexual crimes” in 2013-14 to 51 per cent in 2016-17.

A survey by children’s charity the NSPCC reveals four out of five young people think social media sites need to do more to more to protect them from harmful content.

In 2016/17 Childline, which is run by the NSPCC, provided 2,132 counselling sessions with young people worried about online child sexual exploitation, including online grooming, online sexual harassment and engaging in sexually explicit activity online, 492 of which were in Scotland. The stats show a 44 per cent increase on the previous year.

Jayne Laidlaw, service manager for Childline Scotland, who manages the helpline’s Glasgow base, said children who contacted them were often “devastated” by online abuse of their trust.

"We have had young people contact us who have suicidal thoughts because of something that has been shared online,” she said. “Sometimes they are coerced or blackmailed. “If an image has been shared without their consent they can be absolutely devastated and have such a sense of shame. We try to help them feel empowered by de-escalating the situation and giving them choices about what to do next.”

She stressed that teenagers “should be allowed to make mistakes in the digital world” as much as they were in the real world and needed support and understanding from parents and educators. However she underlined the need for internet providers to put more protections in place.

She told the Sunday Herald that earlier this month Childline – which now delivers 70 per cent of its sessions by messenger or email rather than phone – was contacted by over a dozen distressed children, including several in Scotland, who had seen an image shared on Snapchat that appeared to be of a six-year-old child being abused.

Police in England are understood to be investigating.

Childnet, which promotes internet safety, also backed the call for action. Last week it published results of a survey on online sexual harassment which showed almost a third of teenage girls – 31 per cent – and 11 per cent of boys had been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by their peer group. One in 10 of the 1,559 teens interviewed reported receiving threats of sexual violence, including rape.

Hannah Broadbent, deputy chief executive of Childnet International, said: “To young people the digital world is the real world. It has a very big impact.”

Mary Glasgow, deputy director of Children 1st, which also runs free advice resource ParentLine, stressed there was no evidence sexual abuse was increasing. However she said that the risks were more apparent than ever online, causing anxiety for many parents and carers.

She said communication was key. “We do not want parents to get hysterical,” she added. “That does not help them talk to their children. We need to help children to trust their own instincts and grow up in an environment where they know what respect feels like.”

Parents should also feel confident to put in place age appropriate digital boundaries in the same way as they would in the real world, she added.

Kirsten Hogg, head of policy for Barnardo’s Scotland, which in February published a report looking at how to prevent online child sexual abuse and exploitation, stressed a balanced approach was needed: “There are risks online, but the internet can also be a place of opportunity for young people, so we have to be careful not to rush to solutions that involve keeping young people offline, or restricting access to particular platforms,” she said.

“It is vital that they have the skills and knowledge that enable them to make safer choices online and offline.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it had this year published an action plan aimed at protecting children and young people online. “This includes actions to help children and young people develop the necessary skills to stay safe while using the internet, and to support parents and carers to be more aware of the potential risks,” she added, claiming it was also committed to working closely with digital and social media providers.

The Sunday Herald contacted Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube for comment but they did not respond.

Online safety: parent’s guide

The internet can offer children so much but experts suggest taking these simple steps to keep them safe while they enjoy it.

1.Talk to children and young people about the issues of online safety:

Discuss what’s ok to share and the difficulties with anonymous online profiles.

2. Keep communication open: this is not a one-off conversation. Don’t project anxiety but make sure they know how to get help if they need it. Childline has lots of great resources and apps.

3. Set up parental controls: software on phones, tablets or laptops can help block or filter the content your child sees when searching online.

4. Create digital boundaries: in the offline world children are used to navigating parental boundaries so it’s worth considering age-appropriate ones online.

5. Educate yourself and get support if you need it: the NSPCC, the UK Safer Internet Centre and others have lots of resources.