'Wake up to child sex predators' - Dame Esther Rantzen's message as exploitation makes up a third of calls to Yorkshire Childline

Society needs to "wake up" to child sexual exploitation, Dame Esther Rantzen has said, after figures showed more than a third of calls to the Leeds Childline service featured exploitation.

The Leeds-based contact centre takes calls from vulnerable children
The Leeds-based contact centre takes calls from vulnerable children

Dame Esther, who founded the service in 1986, said a "culture of embarrassment" might prevent parents discussing the dangers of sexual predators targeting children over the internet, but added that the prevalence of sexual exploitation had similarities with domestic abuse three decades ago.

Of the 281 counselling sessions delivered by the Childline service in Leeds base to children across the UK, 38 per cent featured some form of exploitation, the NSPCC said.

Young people told Childline their experience with sexual exploitation also included receiving affection or gifts in exchange for sexual activities.

Across the UK, Childline volunteers carried out 4,500 counselling sessions with children concerned they had been a victim of sexual exploitation in the 12 months to April.

This was up 16 per cent on the previous year, and included children as young as nine.

Victims said they were groomed to perform sexual acts, were persuaded to send naked or explicit images, or to share videos of themselves, the NSPCC report said.

Dame Esther told the PA news agency: "I think the internet - which can be a tremendous force for good - has also become the means by which more and more young people are being exploited and finding themselves in difficulty as a result.

"I remember a senior police officer telling me sexting is almost normalised, which is a very shocking thought.

"We all have to wake up to the access predators have."

Asked if there was a culture of embarrassment around parents raising the subject with children, Dame Esther said: "There is. You have to be age-sensitive and use language that is age-appropriate, no question.

"No-one says it's easy, it can be a very sensitive area for parents.

"So part of the information that we need parents to absorb is that it's important - that forewarned is forearmed, and ignorance is not bliss."

The figures showed almost one in three of the 250,000 Childline contacts - also known as counselling sessions, which are carried out over the phone and online - during 2018/19 related to mental or emotional health, while around one in nine was to do with family relationships.

The data also showed 653 people in the youngest age group called Childline with suicidal thoughts or feelings last year, rising to 10,419 among 12 to 15-year-olds, and 8,579 16 to 18-year-olds.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: "Sadly, we are hearing from young people every day 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.

"Everyone must be prepared to confront this problem, from government right through to schools, parents, professionals and us at Childline."

- Childline is available 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 247 or at childline.org.uk.