A WARNING has been issued to parents after a study found Facebook-owned apps are used in over half of online grooming cases.

Research by the NSPCC shows there were more than 1,200 online grooming crimes from April to June this year, with Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp being used in 51 per cent of cases.

And more than a third – 37 per cent – were on Instagram, compared with 29 per cent over the previous three years.

Det Supt Ben Mant, the head of Wiltshire Police’s Public Protection Department, said: “This report highlights the many ways that children in our county can be exposed to abuse and exploited.

“We are aware of the impact that the first Covid lockdown had on vulnerable children in our society and have worked hard to signpost ways to report any abuse against them – whether that is directly to the police or any of our partners and charities like the NSPCC.

“Social media can be a fantastic tool, especially during lockdown when children want to communicate with their friends, but can also be incredibly dangerous. We would urge parents to pay close attention to what their children are using and who they are talking to online.”

There were almost 500 offences in the south west in 2019-20, up from 377 in 2017-18. Wiltshire Police recorded 30 cases over the past year.

Freedom of Information responses from 38 police forces in England and Wales show that 1,220 offences of sexual communication with a child were recorded in the first three months of lockdown.

Det Supt Mant added: “If you have any concerns about who a child is speaking to online, we encourage you to please call the police or one of our partner agencies or charities to ensure their safety.

“The welfare of vulnerable children in our communities is a top priority and we all have a responsibility and role to play to keep them safe.”

The children’s charity warned the pandemic had created a perfect storm for online offenders and believe these figures could mark the start of a surge in online grooming crimes.

The new data comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes vital decisions about online harms legislation that will create a duty of care on tech firms, with an announcement expected within weeks.

Mr Johnson is being urged to ensure companies and named managers can be held criminally responsible for failing to protect children from avoidable harm and abuse.