Online abusers 'outpacing ' child protection agencies
Professionals helping child victims of sexual abuse are not keeping pace with technological advances, academics say.
They warn that while perpetrators have become more ingenious in their use of technology to engage with vulnerable children, the training available to professionals has not kept up.
The researchers surveyed health, education and children's services workers across England.
They concluded that professionals are playing "catch-up" with abusers.
The study was carried out by researchers at Plymouth University and University Campus Suffolk for the Marie Collins Foundation.
Professionals who took part in the survey included school nurses, health visitors and paediatricians, social workers, child protection advisers, family and education welfare officers, teachers and learning support assistants.
More than half of the 692 people who responded to the survey said they did not currently feel confident about helping children who had experienced harm or abuse online.
The results also showed 70% of those respondents stated they had not received training in online risk assessment, with 95% saying they would value such training.
The researchers heard of a case where a mother had offered her 11-year-old daughter for sex to attract men for herself, and many cases of teenage girls being abused by men they had agreed to meet after making contact online.
They also found instances of boys and girls as young as nine using chat rooms to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, and girls being encouraged to perform sexual acts for "friends" which were filmed and then distributed.
The Marie Collins Foundation was launched two years ago and named after a survivor of sexual abuse.
Its chief executive, Tink Palmer, said the study confirmed what he called "a dearth of understanding and professional expertise" about safeguarding children online, and the recovery needs of victims.
"The response to the needs of children and their families is at best ad hoc," he said.
'Negative and sinister'
"Professionals lack confidence in assisting children in their recovery and it is apparent that this is due to a lack of adequate training.
"Currently, many professionals are attempting to deal with cases for which they are not equipped."
Andy Phippen, professor of social responsibility in IT at Plymouth University, said the research was "shocking".
"While the internet has become a positive influence on many people's lives, there are still those who use it in a negative and sinister fashion," he said.
"The fast pace of its development has in many cases left the authorities playing catch-up and while some now have policies in place, a huge amount of work is required to ensure those affected by online abuse receive the correct support."
A Government spokesperson said there is "nothing more important than protecting children from harm.
"Our new, sharpened guidance on child protection makes clear what is expected of schools, health professionals, councils and agencies if they suspect that a child has suffered or may have suffered harm - including online abuse."
The government has also asked the former chief executive of the children's charity Barnado's, Sir Martin Narey, to "review the training and education of social workers so we can be clearer about what our social workers need to know and understand in this challenging career."
"We are continuing with social work reforms, cutting red tape and spending £400 million on bursaries and training schemes to attract the very best into the profession," the spokesperson added.