Children as young as five are committing thousands of sexual offences as online pornography is warping youngsters’ views of “normal behaviour”, the NSPCC warned today.
More than 5,000 child sex offences, including rape and other serious sex attacks, were recorded by police in the last three years where the abuser was under 18, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act showed.
At least three forces – Avon and Somerset, Humberside and Cambridgeshire – all showed abusers as young as five.
The children may have seen pornography on an older brother’s computer, shared a bedroom with teenagers and witnessed inappropriate behaviour, or could have been allowed in a room while parents were watching sex scenes on the television.
Others may have been abused themselves, the children’s charity said.
A total of 4,562 young people, 98% of them boys, were recorded as the abuser by police in some 5,028 offences between 2009/10 and 2011/12, but the true figure could be even higher as nine forces, including the three largest – the Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police and West Midlands Police – could not provide the relevant figures.
Claire Lilley, policy adviser at the NSPCC, said Britain needed to do more to shield children from an “increasingly sexualised society” amid growing problems with online grooming, harassment in chatrooms and so-called “sexting”.
Three out of five child victims knew their attacker, in one in three cases it was a family friend or acquaintance, and in one in five it was a family member, the NSPCC said.
Ms Lilley added: “In some cases older children are attacking younger ones and in other cases it’s sexual violence within a teenage relationship.
"We hope our findings will ring alarm bells with the authorities that this is a problem which needs urgent attention.
“While more research needs to be done on this problem, we know that technology and easy access to sexual material is warping young people’s views of what is ‘normal’ or acceptable behaviour.
“We are treating an increasing number of children who have carried out online grooming, harassment in chatrooms and ‘sexting’.”
She went on: “If we are to tackle this growing problem and protect young victims, more needs to be done to identify and treat children at risk of sexually offending.
“And we must do more to shield young people from an increasingly sexualised society.”
The charity’s warning comes after a report last month found teachers and social workers were failing to report child sex offending because they cannot face having to confront it.
Staff are either in denial or dismissing signs of sexual deviancy. One in three cases of child sex offenders examined by probation inspectors revealed previous incidents that had been ignored by schools, social workers or other authorities.
In one case, a boy who was first convicted of a sexual offence at the age of 16 had been displaying inappropriate behaviour since he was eight.
Liz Calderbank, the chief inspector of probation, said the lack of action was "a lost opportunity, both for the children themselves and their potential victims".
Earlier this year, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre urged parents to warn their children of the risks of sexual abuse online.
Sexual predators were hacking into their social networking accounts to blackmail children into carrying out sexual acts over webcams, Peter Davies, the centre’s chief executive, said.