NEW FIGURES have shone a light on the alarming rise in the number of offences involving actual or attempted online sexual communication with children in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months.
According to data supplied to the Belfast Telegraph by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), there were 82 recorded offences in the past year (2017-2018) compared with 19 the year previous.
Commenting on the findings, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) called for the introduction of new laws to end the "Wild West" culture of the internet and crack down on grooming via social media.
Colin Reid, police manager for NSPCC Northern Ireland, said: "Social networks have self-regulated and it's absolutely clear that children have been harmed as a result.
"We would urge the UK Government to follow through on their 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 online grooming to prevent communicating with children from escalating into something even worse."
Alarmingly, girls aged anywhere between 12 and 15 accounted for the majority of the victims in these cases.
PSNI Detective Superintendent Deirdre Bones pointed to the increasingly dangerous role social media is playing in helping people not only communicate but commit more crimes.
"The internet can be a great place but it is important to remember there are people out there who may wish to abuse it," she said.
Bones also urged any worried parents out there to "become net-savvy".
"The best safeguard against online dangers is being informed. Learn the basics of the internet and find out more about social media."
The NSPCC is urging the UK government to introduce mandatory safety rules for social media networks and an independent regulator.
They also want social media sites to provide annual safety reports and to introduce technology to detect grooming scams on their site.
Launched as part of the charity's #WildWestWeb campaign, the NSPCC is currently overseeing the implementation of a series of newly-passed government laws designed to better regulate social networks.
These new figures have served to further highlight the need for change.