PREDATORS targeting children online have contributed to a stark rise in sexual grooming offences recorded in our region.

North-East police forces received more than 350 reports of sexual communication with a child between April 2018 and April 2019, reflecting a rise of almost 40 per cent in a year.

In England and Wales there were 4,373 offences recorded, compared with 3,217 in the previous year.

The figures were made public by the NSPCC almost a decade after a much-loved Darlington teenager lost her life to an internet predator.

In 2009, sex offender Peter Chapman used the site to target Ashleigh Hall, pretending to be a 16-year-old in order to befriend the student.

Miss Hall went missing in October that year after arranging to meet Chapman, with her body later discovered in a field close to Sedgefield. Her killer was jailed in 2010 after admitting the 17-year-old’s kidnap, rape and murder.

Miss Hall’s death sent shockwaves around the country and sparked internet safety initiatives in her hometown and further afield.

Around the time of her death, Miss Hall’s mother Andrea, urged families to be vigilant online, saying: “Tell your kids to be careful on the internet – don’t meet someone without telling your family where you are going.

“Don’t trust anybody and don’t put your children on Facebook or other sites if they are underage.

“We have learned a terrible lesson – all we ask now is that people help the police in any way they can. We don’t want any other child to be a victim.”

In light of the shocking figures obtained by the NSPCC, Ms Hall’s heartfelt plea remains undeniably pertinent.

The charity found that social media platforms are commonly abused as a means of making illicit contact with youngsters, with national statistics showing that one in five victims were of primary school age.

Where police forces disclosed means of communication to the NSPCC, Facebook-owned apps were said to have been used in more than 75 per cent of the incidents recorded nationally.

Facebook itself was implicated in 156 cases in our region between 2017 and 2019, Instagram in 128 cases, Snapchat in 91 and Whatsapp in 13.

The Government is expected to publish a draft Online Harms Bill early next year which would introduce independent regulation of social networks and sanctions for organisations that fail to keep children safe on their platforms.

Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, called for Boris Johnson’s Government to make a public commitment to introducing the bill, saying: “It’s now clearer than ever that Government has no time to lose in getting tough on these tech firms.

"Despite the huge amount of pressure that social networks have come under to put basic protections in place, children are being groomed and abused on their platforms every single day.

“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.”