UK & World News
Online Abuse: Police Deal With Thousands Of Kids
Almost 2,000 children have been investigated by police in the last three years for breaking laws used to crack down on social media abuse, offensive Twitter messages and online bullying, Sky News has learned.
New figures show children as young as nine are among more than 1,200 who have then been charged with a criminal offence or given a caution, warning or fine.
The Sky News investigation also found almost 20,000 adults were the subject of police probes for these offences, the equivalent of around 20 cases a day.
And the number of cases is on the rise - up more than 5% since 2011.
The figures, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, lay bare for the first time how policing the internet has become a daily task for Britain's forces.
And as 18 of the UK's police forces failed to provide figures, the true number of investigations is likely to be much greater.
They include a series of high-profile prosecutions in recent years of people accused of posting abuse on Twitter.
Ellie, a teenage victim of online harassment who reported her case to police, told Sky News she thought the figures were "shocking".
She said she suffered death threats and comments about her family on social media.
"They stalked me and knew a lot about me," she said.
"I drove at the time and where I used to live there's a little bridge. And within hours of driving over it, there was a comment saying you should have crashed your car over the bridge you drove over.
"With bullying that happens at school, people can get away from it at home. For me, this literally followed me everywhere I went."
Sky News asked police forces how many investigations they had launched in the last three years under Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, which covers abuse on Twitter or other social media sites, in text messages or through nuisance phone calls.
New guidance issued last year raised the threshold for prosecution, but experts say the rise in the number of cases despite the stricter definition is the result of easy internet access via smartphones.
According to responses from 34 police forces, 6,919 people were investigated in 2011/12 under Section 127, including 744 children.
In 2012/13, 6,974 cases were probed including 578 under-18s. After the first nine months of 2013/14, those figures had already hit 7,318 and 610 respectively.
Over the three years, 1,932 children were investigated and 1,203 were either charged with a criminal offence, fined, cautioned or warned verbally. Of the 19,279 adults investigated over that period, 11,292 were subject to police action.
Hertfordshire Police investigated and charged the most people in 2013 - 1,042, up from 291 in 2011. The Metropolitan Police had the highest three-year figure, 2,099.
Four 10-year-olds and one nine-year-old in Tayside were given warnings by police.
Luke Roberts, a social network expert at Beat Bullying, told Sky News: "There are more devices than ever. So whether it's smartphones, internet-connected TVs, more apps - they allow more young people to be harassed than ever before.
"In terms of social networking, we'd like to see more transparency, in terms of giving clear reporting mechanisms to children."
Parenting expert Erika Brodnock told Sky News: "This will continue to be an issue until we equip children with the skills to navigate the digital world and to be resilient to bullying.
"Online activity should be treated exactly the same as offline - parents shouldn't allow their children to play unsupervised on the internet."
Anti-bullying campaigner Alex Holmes said: "I'm quite concerned about criminalising young people.
"I'm a little worried because it's quite serious for a young person to carry that label with them for the rest of their life."
While the number of children being investigated for online abuse is rising, the proportion of children using social networks is falling.
According to Ofcom research, 35% of 5-15 year olds have an active social networking profile - down from 42% in 2011 and 43% in 2012.
Meanwhile two thirds of adults have a social networking profile - a figure unchanged since 2012, according to Ofcom.
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