The concerning trend has been revealed after an investigation by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP), which says that children have been self-harming or even taking their own lives as a result.
The NSPCC has now set up a dedicated helpline to tackle the growing problem. The CEOP has also stressed that parents and children have a number of ways of reporting abuse and is currently working with schools to offer assemblies and lessons on how to stay safe online.
Young victims are blackmailed after the offender, often posing as a child, convinces them to share images or perform sexual acts. They then threaten to send the pictures to friends and family unless they do as they are told.
In the past two years, the CEOP has been involved in 12 operations with offending of this nature and using information from police services in the UK and abroad, it says it has uncovered 424 cases of online sexual blackmail, with 184 involving victims in the UK.
Of the 424 victims, seven children seriously self-harmed or attempted to take their own life, including six from the UK. Seven children took their own life, including one from the UK.
In some cases, children are not only made to exchange sexual images/videos of themselves, but also forced to perform other acts live on webcam, including cutting themselves.
A CEOP statement said: “These operations are showing how offenders usually assume a fake identity by pretending to be a child and sometimes a different gender.
“They initially target children on more open chat sites and social networks before quickly moving them into more private areas where conversations become sexualised. Once the child has sent images, the offenders begin blackmailing them either for more indecent images or, in few cases, for cash.”
Andy Baker, CEOP deputy chief executive, said: “These offenders are cowards. They hide behind a screen, and in many cases make hollow threats which they know they will never act on because sharing these images will only bring the police closer to them.”
The NSPCC has set up a 24/7 helpline for anyone worried about this issue. You can call anonymously on 0800 328 0904. Victims and their friends are also urged to contact ChildLine in confidence on 0800 1111.
Another option is to use the “ClickCEOP” button on the CEOP website to report abuse. Visit www.ceop.police.uk. CEOP also offers support via its Think U Know website, which has dedicated sections for children, parents and teachers or trainers. Visit www.thinkuknow.co.uk