More than 3,000 offences have been recorded in England and Wales in the first year since a new anti-grooming law came into force, with the youngest child targeted aged just five years old.
Among those offences, 26 were recorded by Northamptonshire Police as revealed by children's charity NSPCC.
Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram were the top three most-recorded sites out of 80 different methods used in grooming offences.
The new crime of sexual communication with a child came into force on April 3, 2017 following an NSPCC campaign, and in the first year a total of 3,171 crimes were recorded by police – amounting to nine grooming offences per day.
Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: “These numbers are far higher than we had predicted, and every single sexual message from an adult to a child can have a huge impact for years to come.
“Social networks have been self-regulated for a decade and it’s absolutely clear that children have been harmed as a result.
“I urge Digital Secretary Matt Hancock to follow through on his promise and introduce safety rules backed up in law and enforced by an independent regulator with fining powers.
“Social networks must be forced to design extra protections for children into their platforms, including algorithms to detect grooming to prevent abuse from escalating.”
Police revealed which methods groomers used in 2,097 instances, and records show Facebook was used in nearly 30 per cent of those cases, while Snapchat and Instagram were each used in around a fifth of cases.
Northamptonshire Police recorded 26 offences of Sexual Communication with a Child during the first year of the law, with 12 crimes recorded as involving Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.
Following the NSPCC’s #WildWestWeb campaign, Digital Secretary Matt Hancock announced that laws will be brought in to regulate social networks, to keep children safe and prevent harms such as grooming.
The charity is now campaigning to ensure those laws are sufficiently robust to prevent grooming and to truly keep children safe. It is calling on Government to create mandatory safety rules that social networks are legally required to follow; establish an independent regulator to enforce safety laws and fine non-compliant sites; require social media sites to publish annual safety reports; and force platforms to develop technology to detect grooming using algorithms.
Across England and Wales, where police disclosed the gender and age of the victim, girls aged 12-15 were recorded as being the victim in 62 per cent of cases. And under-11s were recorded as the victim in nearly a quarter of cases.
The majority of male and female victims of the offence recorded by Northamptonshire Police were aged 12 to 15, with 14 cases highlighted in the figures provided.
Mared Parry, from North Wales, was sent sexual messages from men ten years older than her on Facebook when she was aged just 14.
Mared, who has waived her right to anonymity, was groomed to send semi-naked pictures to them. She said: “At the beginning it was messages like ‘Hey, how are you?
“But as the weeks went on, they started sending messages that were more and more sexual. It was so subtle; that’s why it is so easy for an online chat to slip into being so wrong.
“If I didn’t reply or speak the way they wanted me to, then they would say: ‘You’re just too immature for me’. They were so manipulative, but you don’t even notice it.
“Looking back at it now, it’s scary to think that I sent semi-naked pictures to older guys. It could have gone a lot further.”