New law is needed to protect children online

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.

boy in garden holding mobile phone

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.

The importance of stopping offenders early

In 2012 Phillip Pirrie was convicted for arranging to meet and sexually abuse a 13 year old girl he first contacted online. During the trial it was revealed that he had previously contacted a 14 year old girl through an online game and sent the girl sexual messages. These were found by the girl's father who took his concerns to the police, but no further action was taken as a meeting had not taken place between Pirrie and the girl.

Under the law the NSPCC is calling for Pirrie could have been prosecuted and convicted in respect of the first 14 year old victim. He could then have been put on the sex offenders register, and had a civil prevention order put in place. And this could have prevented him from offending against the second 13 year old victim.

We must act before damage is done

Of course, if a child is coerced into sending the adult an indecent photo, performing a sexual act over a webcam, or the adult arranges to meet the child for sex, that adult has then committed an offence. However, damage to the child has already been done.

We shouldn't have to wait for a child to suffer abuse before the law steps in. We want legislation to keep up with technology and offender behaviour in order to properly protect children.

Make sending sexual messages to a child illegal

To this end we're calling for a new stand-alone offence, of an adult intentionally sending a sexual communication to a child so that it's clear to everyone that this isn't acceptable.

The Serious Crime Bill, currently progressing through Parliament, is an ideal opportunity to introduce the new offence, and this is what we're calling on government to do.

The NSPCC strongly believe that we all need to play a part in keeping children safe online. In January, we'll be launching a strand of the campaign targeted at parents, to help support them with how to talk to their children about staying safe when socialising online.

But the issue of updating the law around the sending of sexual messages rests firmly with government to address, and we will keep up the fight until we can persuade them of the impact this would have in helping to keep children safe.