A Derry based helpline for victims of child sex abuse has been inundated with calls in the past year.
The rise in children’s cries for help is revealed as the NSPCC launches its ‘Flaw in the Law’ campaign to make it a crime for an adult to send a child a sexual message.
A YouGov poll of 541 people in Northern Ireland, which included 73 from Derry, found that almost three out of four adults believe it is already illegal for someone over 18 to send a sexual message to a child under 16.
However, no such specific offence exists.
Nearly 90 per cent of people polled by YouGov here said they would support a change in the law and the NSPCC is now urging the public to back its campaign by signing an online petition.
The number of children counselled by ChildLine across the UK about online sexual abuse increased by 168% last year.
ChildLine’s bases in Belfast and Foyle counselled 288 children about online sexual abuse last year.
One girl who was counselled by the ChildLine base in Foyle said: “There’s this guy sending me disgusting messages online.
“He started off being really nice and giving me loads of compliments but now all he talks about is how he wants me to do sexual things for him.
“I’ve seen a photo of him and he’s definitely a lot older than what he said he was.”
Colin Reid, NSPCC Northern Ireland Policy and Public Affairs Manager, said: “No adult should be deliberately sending sexual messages to children, but incredibly it is not always illegal. Existing laws are a hotch-potch and sex offenders can and do exploit the loopholes.
“The rise of online communication means that children are increasingly being exposed to sexual messages from adults, on social networks or through messaging apps, but in many cases the police are powerless to act.
“Currently, old laws are being stretched to fit new paedophile behaviour. The Serious Crime Bill now being debated in Parliament is a unique opportunity to tailor the law to better protect children from sexual abuse. And we need the public to get behind our Flaw in the Law campaign.”
People can find out more about the NSPCC campaign and sign the petition at http://bit.ly/flawinthelaw and join the debate on social media at #FlawedLaw