Thousands of children are meeting up with people they have only spoken to online

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One in six children have exchanged online messages with people they do not know in the past year, according to new official statistics.

The figures also show that five per cent of children have met up with someone they had only spoken to online, while 11 per cent of children said they have received a sexual message (one in 100 reported sending a sexual message).

Compiled by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the figures are for the year ending March 2020 and cover England and Wales. They cover children and young people aged 10 to 15.

It means that across England and Wales an estimated 682,000 young people exchanged online messages during the year in question with someone they had never met and 212,000 met up in person with someone they had only spoken to online.

Broken down, the statistics reveal that boys are more likely than girls (19 vs 14 per cent) and older children more likely than younger pupils to speak to people online they do not know. However, five per cent of 10-year-olds still said they had done so.

Furthermore, an estimated 37 per cent of children who spoke to someone online they had never met before did not have a connection to or mutual friend with that person. Many contacts were made via online games.

Most children (85 per cent) owned a smartphone with which they went online; 50 per cent used their games console.

The figures also show that only 64 per cent of parents and guardians had in place rules about the length of time and when their children could go online.

When it comes to sexual messages – a term which covers texts, images and videos – 11 per cent of 13 to 15-year-olds said that they had received such a message in the previous year. Girls (16 per cent) were significantly more likely to have received one compared with boys (six per cent).

Nearly three quarters said they had received more than one message, with a minority receiving more than 20 messages during the year.

The report states: “The majority of children (84 per cent) received sexual messages through messages, images or videos sent to them, while 17 per cent of children received them through messages, images or videos posted online. Other methods included in a chatroom (nine per cent) and in an online game (three per cent).

“Slightly over half of children (56 per cent) told someone about the sexual messages they received. They were most likely to tell their friends (80 per cent) followed by family (47 per cent). Other people that children chose to tell include their girlfriend or boyfriend (10 per cent), teacher (three per cent), other adults they know (two per cent) and other school staff (one per cent).”

Sophie Sanders from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice said: "Now more than ever, being online can bring huge benefits to children, but it can also pose significant risks. Using data collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see that most children aged 10 to 15 years only spoke to people online who they already knew in person. However, one in six children spoke to someone they had never met in person and five per cent subsequently met up with someone they had only spoken to online. Although these situations may not necessarily lead to any harm, it is important to bear in mind that they all carry serious risks for children."

  • If you believe a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999 or 112. If the child is not in immediate danger but you are still concerned that they might be in danger or in risk of being in danger, you can contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing, Childline on 0800 1111 or your local child protection services.
  • ONS: Children‘s online behaviour in England and Wales: year ending March 2020, February 2021:


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