The charity’s Childline service was contacted by 4,500 children and young people in 2018-19 who said they had been sexually exploited – a 16% rise compared to the previous year.
The NSPCC has described the increase as a “huge concern” and suggested the increasing popularity of online gaming and social networks could be partly to blame, by providing additional avenues for paedophiles to target kids.
Shaun Friel, head of Childline, said: “The increase is incredibly significant when you consider how difficult it is for a young person to firstly recognise that they are being exploited and secondly to speak out given the grooming they’ve experienced and, quite often, the pressure they’re under not to tell anyone.”
Mr Friel has welcomed the planned introduction of compulsory relationship and sex education lessons in schools in England in 2020, but wants “proper training” for staff to give them the “confidence” to deliver the classes.
The Department for Education has said that from September next year, pupils will be taught about healthy relationships in an age-appropriate way.
Its guidance recommends anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should report this to children’s social care or the police.
Lucie, not her real name, is now 22 but was first abused by a man she met on an online chatroom when she was 12.
She told Sky News: “If primary school teachers especially had better awareness of child sexual exploitation it could really help. I had no specific lessons about grooming or abuse, or the dangers and risks associated with using the internet. Schools need to keep up with changing technology.”
Lucie speaks about her experience to try to help others gain the confidence to talk about what’s happened to them.
She added: “I suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder and I’ll most likely be on medication for the rest of my life, unfortunately. But as I’ve got older I’ve become quite good at controlling flashbacks and panic attacks but they do still happen.”
Childline delivered 250,281 counselling sessions to under-19s in 2018/19.
Unlike when the helpline began in 1986, the vast majority of kids now reach out for help online, rather than by phone.
The most common reason for a young person getting in touch was mental or emotional health issues, while the most popular discussion topics on the service’s website were about sex and sexual health.