MORE must be done to protect young girls online, a leading child protection charity has said.

The NSPCC made the statement after obtaining information from 34 police forces across the country - with figures from Lancashire showing four in five victims of online grooming in the county are female.

The data shows that the force recorded 321 offences in which an adult engaged in sexual communication with a child under 16 between July 2020 and March.

The gender of the victim was recorded in 202 crimes – 163 (81 per cent) of whom were female, and 39 male.

The data also shows that where the age of the female victim was recorded, 122 were aged between 12 and 15, and 51 under 11.

In some cases, a victim was not recorded. The NSPCC said this could be because the victim was a decoy acting as a child or because of inaccurate recording by the force.

The offence of sexual communication with a child, which was introduced in 2017 in England and Wales, refers to crimes committed online as well as in-person or via text message.

The NSPCC is now calling on the Government to act to ensure it lives up to its previously stated ambition of making the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online.

It said the Online Safety Bill, currently being examined by MPs and peers, must be strengthened to stop grooming and abuse spreading between apps, disrupt abuse at the earliest possible stage and hold senior managers to account.

Anna Edmundson, head of policy, said: “Any child can be a victim of online sexual abuse but the sheer number of girls being targeted is both alarming and a reminder of the failure of platforms to effectively protect their young users.

“One of the primary functions of the Online Safety Bill is to keep all children – including girls – safe when they go online.

"Now, the new Culture Secretary has the opportunity to fix the substantive weaknesses in the legislation so it does just that.”

The Government said social media companies needed to clamp down on child abuse content and prevent young people from being groomed.

A police spokesman said: "Lancashire Constabulary is committed to preventing child sexual abuse, helping victims and bringing offenders to justice.

"It is a crime that can affect any child, anytime, anywhere - regardless of their social or ethnic background."

They added:"We will continue to target, warn and prosecute offenders to hit home the message that this type of behaviour is not just unacceptable, it is criminal, and we will pursue those people involved and bring them to justice, irrespective of their backgrounds."