The vast majority of 10 to 15-year-olds in England and Wales go online every day, with some speaking to strangers and receiving sexual messages, new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest.
The data, collected before the coronavirus pandemic, found that 89% of those in that age group said they used the internet every day.
While the majority said they only exchanged messages online with people they knew, around one in six (17%) said they had spoken to someone in the previous 12 months who they had never met before, while 2% said they had spoken to someone they thought was their own age, but later found out was much older.
The figures also showed that an estimated 5% of those aged 10 to 15 said they had met up with someone they had previously only spoken to online over the previous 12 months, while around 11% of 13 to 15-year-olds reported receiving a sexual message.
Some 1% said they had sent a sexual message.
The new stats have been published to coincide with Safer Internet Day and as experts continue to urge parents to be aware of the online risks – such as grooming, misinformation or other harmful content – as children continue to spend even more time online during lockdown and with schools closed.
The data suggests girls aged 13 to 15 were more likely to report receiving sexual messages than boys.
Commenting on the figures, Sophie Sanders, from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice, said: “Now more than ever, being online can bring huge benefits to children, but it can also pose significant risks.
“Using data collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, we can see that most children aged 10 to 15 years only spoke to people online who they already knew in person.
“However, one in six children spoke to someone they had never met in person and 5% subsequently met up with someone they had only spoken to online.
“Although these situations may not necessarily lead to any harm, it is important to bear in mind that they all carry serious risks for children.”
Warnings about the dangers for young people online do appear to have had an impact on most parents, with the figures suggesting that 64% of the parents or guardians of children aged 10 to 15 had some sort of rules about the length of time and when their children can go online.
Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the NSPCC, said he was concerned by the findings.
“This insight highlights the worrying amount of children who are receiving sexual messages on social media, and the extent to which young people make friends online and meet new people in person who they’ve been speaking to on the web,” he said.
“Risky design choices by tech companies mean it is far too easy for adult abusers to exploit how children communicate on social networks. With the majority of this contact taking place in private messaging, it is paramount these services are a focus for upcoming regulation.
“The Online Safety Bill must be built around children’s experiences, giving Ofcom the agility to investigate firms and the power to hold named directors responsible if failures in their duty of care put children at risk.”