Coronavirus: Increased risk of online child sexual abuse

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image captionThere has been an increase in the amount of time spent by people online during lockdown, police say

Children are at an increased risk of online sexual abuse during the coronavirus lockdown, police and a charity have said.

Police said there has been a rise in online grooming and people accessing indecent images of children.

In response, police are supporting a campaign by the Stop it Now project.

Det Ch Supt Anthony McNally said it "is one of the most horrendous crimes against one of the most vulnerable sections of our community".

Police said figures show that 1,460 people from Northern Ireland contacted the Stop It Now! helpline and self-help website in 2019 to address their behaviour.

In the past year, police said its child protection team has carried out 87 searches and made 47 arrests in relation to this type of online offending, with 121 searches and 79 arrests in 2018-19 and 158 searches and 87 arrests in 2017-18.

image captionDet Ch Supt Anthony McNally said child sexual abuse "is a priority for police"

The head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland's public protection branch said children are at risk because of a number of "coinciding factors".

"We know that children are more likely to be online at the moment when they're not at school and we also know that people are not working or have been furloughed and generally have more time," said Mr McNally.

"We are definitely seeing an increase in people on the internet.

"Parents are extremely busy too and might not have the same time to look after their children's online activity."

Mr McNally also appealed to people who may have sexualised thoughts of children "to stop that behaviour" and said Stop It Now! - which runs a confidential helpline and website for anyone concerned about child sexual abuse - can support them.

For those that have offended, he said "the police will take absolutely robust action when a crime is reported to us".

Earlier this year, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said that it believes there are at least 300,000 individuals in the UK who pose a sexual threat to children, either through physical contact abuse or online.

"The purpose of this campaign is to raise awareness of those things and do all we can as a society to prevent crime and do what we can to keep people safe," he added.

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