Half of adults who have conversations with strangers online do not check how old they are, research suggests.
A survey of 2,558 people over the age of 16 for child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation found that a quarter of adults in the UK chat to people they do not know, with 55% not checking their age.
The poll also suggested that one in 10 men (11%) over the age of 25 would not immediately stop the conversation if they discovered that they were talking to a child under the age of 16.
The charity has warned that while it is not illegal for an adult to speak to a child online, any sexual communications are against the law and come with a potential two-year prison sentence.
It runs a helpline Stop It Now! aimed at stopping offenders or potential offenders from abusing children.
Director of Stop It Now! Donald Findlater said: “Our message to all adults having online conversations with anyone under 16 is to be crystal clear about your boundaries and the law.
“These are your responsibility. Online sexual conversations with under-16s are illegal – no ifs, no buts, no excuses.”
More than two-in-five (44%) of those surveyed said it could be difficult to determine what constituted online grooming, while more than a third (37%) said they would not know what to do if they caught someone having a sexual conversation with a child online.
In the past two years, Stop It Now! has seen a 64% rise in the number of people getting in touch with concerns about their own or a loved one’s behaviour.
Dr Alexandra Bailey, a psychologist for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said: “There can be many different reasons why people offend online, but there are no excuses.
“To prevent harmful and illegal behaviour and protect children, we must recognise these reasons and help people to stop the behaviour and ensure it stays stopped.”
Wendy Hart, deputy director for child sexual abuse at the National Crime Agency, said: “We see first-hand the life-shattering effect these online interactions can have on victims, as well as the devastation this brings to the family of the perpetrator.
“Stopping online offending taking place in the first place is of course the ideal, and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation carries out an extremely important service in preventing this criminality.
“However, if you do go on to commit abuse, we will work relentlessly to ensure you are arrested and brought to justice.
“You and only you will be responsible for the life-changing impact your offending has on the victim and your family.”
The Stop It Now! helpline is available by calling 0808 100 0900 or online.
– 2,558 adults over the age of 16 were surveyed online by Kantar between September 26 and October 2.