Existing laws are failing to keep children safe - the government must introduce new legislation, writes Claire Lilley
I'm sure you would agree that no adult should be sending sexual messages to a child. However, it's currently not always illegal and the law in this area is fragmented and confused.
This makes it hard for police to deal with adults who send sexual messages to children. There are existing laws that in theory could be used to prosecute adults who send sexual messages to children but their application is limited.
Why existing laws aren't enough
The Sexual Offences Act (2003) only covers situations where it can be proved that the adult intends to meet a child. However, increasingly abusers online have no intention to meet a child and abuse them physically, meaning this legislation doesn't cover online grooming. Furthermore, since action cannot be taken by authorities until there is a clear intention to meet, or set out on a journey, vital opportunities to stop the abuse escalating are being missed.
Two other pieces of legislation can be called upon, the Malicious Communications Act (1988) and the Communications Act (2003), but again these are of limited use in stopping an adult from sending a child a sexual message. They can only be applied if the message can be proven to have been intended to cause distress or anxiety, or was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.
However, abusers often groom children by acting in the exact opposite way – flattering them and making them feel special in order to build up their trust. Importantly, anyone convicted under either of these pieces of legislation would not be subject to sex offender registration and notification requirements.
So these gaps in the law mean that adults can often get away with 'fishing' for child victims on social networks, mobile apps, chat rooms, and in online gaming environments.
Increasing concerns about online abuse
It's clear that this is an issue significantly affecting young people. We know from ChildLine that young people are experiencing all sorts of new forms of abuse via technology - last year there was a 168 per cent rise in contacts to about online abuse - and that many parents rate keeping their children safe online as a key concern for the welfare of their child.
It's for these reasons that it's all the more concerning that there are examples where the law as it stands has failed to protect children from sex offenders.