Sex exploitation of children on rise in North as more seek counselling

Childline calls for better relationship and sexual education as young targeted online

Childline conducted 140 sessions with children from Northern Ireland who had been groomed and forced into sexual activity in 2018-2019. Photograph: Adam Peck/PA Wire

An increased number of children have received counselling for sexual exploitation from the Childline helpline in Northern Ireland.

Figures contained in its annual review, published on Friday, show the service conducted 140 sessions with children from Northern Ireland who had been groomed and forced into sexual activity in 2018-2019, compared with 97 the year before – an increase of 44 per cent.

In 86 of these – or 60 per cent – the young people disclosed they had been targeted online, including through social media or video games, and often by their peers or people they knew.

Childline – run by the children’s charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) – has called for improved teacher training in relationships and sexual education.


Child sexual exploitation can include grooming, sharing and receiving sexual images, trafficking, sexual harassment and engaging in online sexual activities such as live streaming.

According to Childline, child sexual exploitation featured in more than half their Northern Ireland counselling sessions about sexual abuse.

Tricked and groomed

The service believes the true scale of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland is “almost certainly” higher, as almost a fifth of children who used the helpline from across the UK did not reveal where they were from.

The charity said that children in Northern Ireland most often asked for help because they had been tricked into sending naked images or videos of themselves, or had been contacted or groomed by someone wanting to sexually exploit them.

Young people also told Childline that they had received affection or gifts in exchange for performing sexual activities, while others were persuaded to share sexual images online and threatened that these would be shared with friends or family.

One 18-year-old girl told the charity that when she was younger she had talked to people online because she was lonely.

“Some older guys started chatting to me and I sent nude pictures and videos of myself to them,” she said. “I got compliments and didn’t know how to say no. Most of them knew I was just 13 and some of them threatened to post the pictures online if I didn’t send more.

‘Manipulated or blackmailed’

“I feel sick just thinking about it and feel so insecure about this all coming back to haunt me.”

Childline's Belfast manager, Mairead Monds, said that every day the charity was hearing from young people "who are being manipulated or blackmailed into carrying out sexual acts.

“For many, this impacts on their mental health and leaves them feeling isolated from the people closest to them.

“Some turn to self-harm, alcohol or substance misuse as ways of coping with their experiences.”

She said that everyone including government, schools, parents and professionals must be prepared to confront the problem.

“The Department of Education should build on existing good practice and developments to ensure teachers are confident to teach relationships and sexuality education,” she said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times