THE number of offences which saw perpetrators caught with indecent images of children in Essex has grown by almost 200 in the last year.

Across the county, there were 767 recorded offences in 2017/18 - an increase from 568 in the previous year.

The figures were obtained by the NSPCC, which sent Freedom of Information requests to every police force across the country.

Overall, the charity found, on average, an offence was recorded every 23 minutes in 2017/18 and the total number of offences rose by almost one quarter in the last year, to 22,724.

A single offence recorded by police can involve hundreds of indecent images of children.

The charity is warning offenders are using social networks to target children for abuse online, grooming and manipulating them into sending naked images.

And as part of the charity’s Wild West Web campaign, bosses are now calling on Government to prevent abuse from happening in the first place by introducing an independent regulator to hold social networks to account.

The largest rise in the east of England was in Bedfordshire, which saw a 69 per cent year-on-year increase in 2017/18.

Last month, an NSPCC survey of 40,000 young people revealed an average of one in 50 schoolchildren had sent a nude or semi-nude image to an adult.

In February, Cambridge graduate Matthew Falder was jailed for 32 years after blackmailing young people into sending him humiliating pictures of themselves which he shared on abuse forums.

And in July, Basildon pensioner Michael Aspland was jailed for making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children.

Tony Stower, NSPCC’s head of child safety online, said: “Every one of these images represents a real child who has been groomed and abused to supply the demand of this appalling trade.

“The lack of adequate protections on social networks has given offenders all too easy access to children to target and abuse.

“This is the last chance saloon for social networks on whose platforms this abuse is often taking place.

“Our Wild West Web campaign is calling on Government to introduce a tough independent regulator to hold social networks to account and tackle grooming to cut off supply of these images at source.”

While UK authorities work to remove child abuse images from the internet new images are constantly uploaded. In 2017, the Internet Watch Foundation identified over 78,000 URLs containing child sexual abuse images.

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