RISING popularity of social media sites like Instagram could be behind a hike in the number of child grooming reports in Wiltshire, police have said.

It came as new figures showed the number of grooming offences reported to Wiltshire Police almost doubled last year.

In the year to April 2018, 54 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded by the county force compared to 28 in the previous year.

The NSPCC, which obtained the figures under freedom of information rules, called on government to turn up the heat on social media firms like Facebook and Twitter.

Reacting to the figures, Det Sgt Helen Clarke of Wiltshire Police’s child internet exploitation team, said: “With the rise in popularity of social media sites such as Instagram, we have seen an increase in the number of incidents involving sexual communication with a child. It is becoming increasingly easy for offenders to access children.

“We want to reassure the public that we are doing everything in our power to monitor the internet activity of those suspected of grooming children online and will actively pursue prosecutions against suspects.”

She urged parents to speak to their children about the dangers of talking to strangers online: “Be aware of what your child is doing online – ensure profiles are private and they are not accepting friend requests from people they do not know.”

Nationally, police forces recorded 4,373 offences of sexual communication with a child in the 12 months to April 2018. In more than half of cases, police were able to give the method of communication used. Instagram featured in a third of cases, while use of Facebook and Snapchat had fallen.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, called for new rules to protect children: “These figures are yet more evidence that social networks simply won’t act unless they are forced to by law. The government needs to stand firm and bring in regulation without delay.”

In April, the government proposed new regulations, with substantial fines for social media firms that do not take down graphic content.