ONLINE grooming crimes in Scotland were more than 30% higher while children were not at school during the coronavirus pandemic compared with the same months last year.

The NSPCC has revealed police recorded 268 offences of communicating indecently with a child from April 1 to July 31 this year compared to 203 in the same period last year.

The charity says the true scale of the problem is likely to be much higher and has called on the UK Government to intervene.

One girl who contacted Childline during the pandemic said: “I am 12 and I don’t have social media but I wanted to get online and chat to people since my friends had done it and told me it would be fun. It started off fine with the occasional ‘hi’ and then men started sending d*** pics and saying really personal things.”

The new data comes as the UK Prime Minister makes vital decisions about online harms legislation that will create a Duty of Care on tech firms, with an announcement expected within weeks.

It’s understood the Online Harms White Paper consultation response has been signed off by the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Home Office and is sitting with Boris Johnson.

The Prime Minister is being urged to ensure companies and named managers can be held criminally responsible for failing to protect children from avoidable harm and abuse.

The need for a bold and ambitious response from Government has been heightened by the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

Criminals are exploiting the fact that children are spending more time online and high-risk video chatting and livestreaming services have become more popular.

After years of failed self-regulation, many platforms were easily exploitable for groomers during lockdown, with many seeing the crisis as an opportunity to commit abuse.

The NSPCC wants the upcoming Online Harms Bill to compel firms to consider child protections when they design their sites to prevent harm rather than react once the damage is done.

But it is warning tough deterrents will be needed to make some of the world’s biggest companies stand up and listen, and is concerned the UK Government may not go far enough.

NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Families have long paid the price for big tech’s failure to protect children, but the Prime Minister has the chance to turn the tide and put responsibility on firms to clean up the mess they created.

“As the pandemic intensifies the threat children face online, bold and ambitious action is needed in the form of a world-leading Online Harms Bill.

“This means legislation that is tough on online crimes against children and regulation that holds tech companies and bosses financially and criminally responsible if they continue to turn a blind eye to entirely avoidable harm.”

Detective Chief Superintendent Samantha McCluskey, head of Police Scotland’s Public Protection Unit, said: “The digital world opens up massive opportunities for us all. As a society it has become integral to our daily lives, particularly for children and young people, whose key means of communication during this pandemic has been online. It is important that we take every opportunity to ensure young people stay safe and are protected.

“Online predators will infiltrate those platforms and apps most used by children. Tech companies and service providers have a key role, and a responsibility, in ensuring young people can access their services safely and that predators are identified and dealt with before they can groom or abuse children in the virtual or real world. Working together we can make the online world safe for all children.”