By Andy Burrows

THE failings of tech firms are resulting in record numbers of children being groomed and sexually abused online. In the past five years, grooming offences committed over the internet have increased by 80% in Scotland, with 2020/21 figures reaching an all-time high. Concerningly, the greatest rise has been seen in crimes against children under the age of 13.

To tackle the size and complexity of this threat, it is crucial that the UK Government makes child protection a priority in its Online Safety Bill. Legislation will only be successful if it delivers a comprehensive package of measures to keep children truly safe now and in the future. As it stands, the UK Government’s plans to regulate social media to protect children from preventable online abuse fall significantly short.

Today, we publish Duty to Protect, our new assessment of the draft bill. This comes as UK parliamentary politicians set out to scrutinise the legislation – an opportunity they must grasp to ensure its vital objectives are met. This bill can, and must, protect children from online sexual abuse, as well as effectively balance the fundamental rights of all users.

We believe that while the Government’s draft bill sets out a broadly workable and robust regulatory model, there are a number of significant weaknesses which need to be addressed. Crucially, to effectively protect children the legislation must impose a duty on tech firms to tackle the cross-platform nature of abuse. Online sexual abuse rarely takes place on a single platform or app. For example, abusers exploit the design features of social networks to make effortless contact with children, before coercing them to migrate to encrypted messaging or live streaming sites.

Another concern is that high-risk sites such as Telegram and OnlyFans could be excluded from having a duty to protect children from harmful content. In the current draft legislation, this duty only applies to companies with a "significant" number of children on their apps, and so instead of tackling harmful content it may simply displace it to smaller sites.

We know that offenders evade the moderation rules of platforms by posting abuse images that are carefully edited to effectively act as shop windows to those who have a sexual interest in children and signpost to illegal content. So, unless the Bill treats behaviour that directly facilitates child abuse with the same severity as the illegal material it causes, a crucial opportunity to prevent abuse at an early stage will be lost.

Furthermore, for the legislation to have real clout, we believe senior managers who breach their child safety duties should face penalties, such as fines, disbarment and censure, with criminal sanctions for the most significant failings that put children at risk of illegal harm.

Unless the Government adopts a more ambitious and child-centred approach in some crucial areas of this bill it will fail to effectively make the online world safe for children. And the unacceptable high cost of industry inaction will continue to be felt by children, families and society.

Andy Burrows is NSPCC head of child safety online policy. Read more at