Sophie Wessex hits out at ‘truly horrific abuse’ of children in passionate speech

Sophie Wessex ‘didn’t make a fuss’ says Angela Levin

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The Countess of Wessex gave a keynote speech at the Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation & Abuse event in Brussels. Addressing the “devastating consequences” online exploitation has on children’s lives, she urged tech companies to do more to “tackle the growing problem”.

She said: “Let us encourage innovation to identify child abuse on messaging services. Let us tackle the growing problem of online grooming with novel technologies.

“Firms should take every reasonable step to design out harm and detect and report abuse and children should be front of mind during this process, and never an afterthought.”

Sophie, 56, spoke in her role as patron of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

The mother-of-two said in the year to March 2021 there were more than 90,000 child sexual abuse and image offences recorded by the police in the UK.

Further, around 200,000 children have sent, received or been asked to send sexual content to an adult.

The Internet Watch Foundation last year reported there had been 8.8 million attempts in the UK to access images and videos of children suffering sexual abuse during lockdown.

From January to April 2021, the foundation reported a 117 percent increase in self-generated images.

Analysis from the NSPCC, meanwhile, found a staggering increase of 70 percent in child abuse image offences between 2017 and 2021.

Sophie shared the horrific stories of two youngsters who were victims of online abuse.

One, a 14-year-old boy, was blackmailed into sending explicit images after threats to kill his parents. Severely impacted by the experience, he eventually tried to take his life.

Another one, a 13-year-old girl, was groomed over social media into a five-year-long online relationship with a married man more than twice her age. He manipulated her into sharing explicit photos.

The Countess said: “This abuse has devastating consequences and severe long term repercussions on their mental health, family and future relationships, with many experiencing trauma and long term behavioural problems, and all too many attempting and committing suicide.”

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Sophie touched upon the increased reliance on virtual communications during the coronavirus pandemic, and how it has led to further threats for children.

She said: “During lockdowns, at home, in their bedrooms, or when going online to stay connected with family and friends, children were exposed to horrendous, but preventable harm.

“Abusers look to exploit ever younger children, meeting them on social networks, grooming them through direct messages, coercing them into sending self-generated images, and escalating their abuse on encrypted messaging and live streaming sites.”

She told MEPs and organisations of the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights: “I am profoundly sorry to say that we are simply not protecting or preparing our children to use this transnational and virtual space.”

Sir Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, said: “The countess’s speech today was a timely and crucial contribution about the need for bold action and international coordination in the urgent fight against online child abuse.

“This is a challenge that can be solved if governments and the tech industry commit the focus and resources required to meet the scale of the threat.”

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