An average of one child per primary school class has been sent a naked or semi-naked image online from an adult, according to an NSPCC survey published today.
The children’s charity is now campaigning for tough regulation for social networks, which it says are “a gateway for child abuse.”
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: "Grooming can no longer be shrugged off as secondary to other online crimes.
“It is happening now, it is happening to very young children, it is happening so frequently that it's becoming normalised, and it is not only coming from adult strangers, but also from known adults. Social networks have become a gateway for child abuse.”
In what was the largest-ever UK survey of children’s experiences online, a total of almost 40,000 children aged between 7 and 16 were asked about the risks they face when using the internet, including whether an adult had ever sent or shown them a naked or semi-naked picture or video on an app, site or game.
'A stranger asked me to take my clothes off'
And one in 25 primary school pupils said they had been sent or shown a naked or semi-naked image by an adult.
One girl, a Year 5 pupil, said: "A complete stranger asked me to take my clothes off and send him a picture.
“When I deleted the game, I went on another site and the same person asked me to have sex with him. I told him to 'back off' and then deleted that game! I’ve seen this person on many sites that I play, and I decided to just block him."
The NSPCC's #WildWestWeb campaign is now calling on the government to create an independent regulator for social networks, to force platforms to proactively detect groomers using their sites.
NSPCC Freedom of Information requests revealed that there had been more than 3,000 offences recorded in England and Wales of a new crime – sexual communication with a child – within the first year. Where police recorded what platforms were used by groomers, either Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat were used in 70 per cent of cases.
At secondary school, even more children reported being targeted by adults sending or showing them nude or semi-nude images, with one in 20 children aged 12-16 saying they had received such an image.
Children said the problem was not limited to strangers contacting them, and some said they had been sent images by adults that they know.
A boy in Year 10 said: "My coach sent me a video of Santa stripping naked." Others reported that the exchange of sexual images, often known as sexting, is becoming normalised, and one pupil in Year 8 said: "A girl from my primary was sending half-naked pictures because it's what everyone does."
Mr Wanless added: "The NSPCC has launched a petition calling on digital secretary Jeremy Wright and home secretary Sajid Javid to put an end to the 'Wild West Web'. We need tough regulation of social networks to make sure there are fundamental protections for children in place, whatever sites they’re using.”