SOARING rates of child sexual grooming in Cumbria and the North East have seen children as young as 10 targeted, says a national charity.

Shocking new figures from the NSPCC have exposed how instances of the crime rose by more than a third in the last year, with police investigating 369 offences of sexual communication with a child in the year to April compared with 271 the previous year.

The same period saw the cases of Facebook owned Instagram being used by perverts to target children more than double compared to the previous year.

Overall in the North East and Cumbria in the last two years, Facebook-owned apps (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) and Snapchat were used in more than 75 per cent of the instances where police recorded and provided the communication method.

The figures have been released just weeks after Carlisle Crown Carlisle court heard how a dangerous sexual predator hijacked a woman’s social media profile to sexually groom a child.

Perverted Kirk Gibson, 31, cynically used the woman’s name and images online as he created a fake profile for himself, posing as a woman so he could groom a vulnerable 15-year-old girl from his home in Penrith.

He was caught after the genuine account holder - horrified by what she found - alerted the police.

The Government has promised an Online Harms Bill for early next year, following the NSPCC’s Wild West Web campaign. The proposals would introduce independent regulation of social networks, with tough sanctions if they fail to keep children safe on their platforms.

The NSPCC believes it is crucial Boris Johnson’s Government makes a public commitment to draw up these Online Harms laws and implement robust regulation for tech firms.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC Chief Executive, said: “It’s now clearer than ever that Government has no time to lose in getting tough on these tech firms.

“Despite the huge amount of pressure that social networks have come under to put basic protections in place, children are being groomed and abused on their platforms every single day.

“These figures are yet more evidence that social networks simply won’t act unless they are forced to by law. The Government needs to stand firm and bring in regulation without delay.”

Freya (not her real name) was 12 when, while she was staying at a friend’s house, a stranger bombarded her Instagram account with sexual messages and videos. Her mum Pippa said: : “She was quiet and seemed on edge when she came home the next day. I noticed her shaking and knew there was something wrong so encouraged her to tell me what the problem was. “When she showed me the messages, I just felt sick. It was such a violation and he was so persistent. He knew she was 12, but he kept bombarding her with texts and explicit videos and images. Freya* didn’t even understand what she was looking at. There were pages and pages of messages, he just didn’t give up.

“Our children should be safe in their bedrooms, but they’re not.They should be safe from messages from strangers if their accounts are on private, but they’re not.”

In England and Wales there were 4,373 sexual communication offences with a child in the year to April 2019 compared with 3,217 the previous year.

The NSPCC wants tough sanctions - including steep fines and boardroom bans - for failing to protect young users – including steep fines for companies, boardroom bans for directors, and a new criminal offence for platforms that commit gross breaches of the duty of care. One in five victims was aged just under 11.

The NSPCC’s Wild West Web campaign is calling for social media regulation to require platforms to:

* Take proactive action to identify and prevent grooming on their sites by:

* Using Artificial Intelligence to detect suspicious behaviour

* Sharing data with other platforms to better understand the methods offenders use and flag suspicious accounts

* Turning off friend suggestion algorithms for children and young people, as they make it easier for groomers to identify and target children

*Design young people’s accounts with the highest privacy settings, such as geo-locators off by default, contact details being private and unsearchable and livestreaming limited to contacts only.

The charity wants to see tough sanctions for tech firms that fail to protect their young users – including steep fines for companies, boardroom bans for directors, and a new criminal offence for platforms that commit gross breaches of the duty of care.

The data obtained from 43 police forces in England and Wales under Freedom of Information laws also revealed that, where age was provided, one in five victims were aged just 11 or younger.