CHILDLINE recently celebrated its 33rd birthday, a magnificent achievement that has made a world of difference to thousands upon thousands of children’s lives over the years. But sadly, the need for Childline has not diminished and on average a child will contact Childline every 25 seconds.

Back in 1986 Dame Esther Rantzen opened the Childline phone lines on that unforgettable night in October and, suddenly, it was overwhelmed with calls.

Children got in touch with all sorts of worries, from bullying concerns to reports of sexual abuse. Over the years the issues that children contact us with have largely not changed.

What has changed is the technology and response that Childline can give, with children feeling more comfortable reaching out via email or instant messaging. And technology has also had an effect on the issues that were there from the start, for example, bullying now encompasses online bullying too. With more and more children on their mobile devices, the bullies can reach into our children’s bedrooms, wherever they are.

The impact of technology has also left its mark on child sexual abuse, particularly child sexual exploitation. Last week, Childline launched its annual review and it revealed that on average 12 counselling sessions were held every day in 2018/19 with children who have been sexually exploited.

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. Perpetrators will often target a vulnerable young person, forming a relationship and showering them with affection, even gifts, drugs, money, and status, in exchange for performing sexual activities. Children and young people are groomed into believing they're in a loving and consensual relationship and that their abuser is the only one who cares or understands them.

One 15-year-old girl told a counsellor she was feeling suicidal after being sexually exploited by a gang of boys: “I never thought I would ever be the sort of person who could be sexually exploited. One day I met up with some boys and they made me feel worth something. It started off small, complimenting me, stroking my hair. One day one of them started kissing me so I pushed him away and said no, but he wouldn’t stop. I ended up having sex with him because I was scared about what would happen if I said no. This pattern continued between the gang. I didn’t see a problem with it until school found out and told me what was happening was a crime.”

Technology has meant that a lot of this grooming is now carried out online. Last week’s Childline Annual Review revealed that our specially trained volunteers had delivered 4,500 counselling sessions – up 16 per cent from the previous year – to children and young people, the youngest aged nine, who were coerced or forced into sexual activity. In more than a third of counselling sessions, young people disclosed they were targeted online – usually through social media or video games – often by their peers or people known to them.

Children and young people revealed they had been forced to perform or watch sexual acts or had been persuaded into sending naked images or videos of themselves. Some were threatened with the images being told they would be shared with friends and family.

Children and young people need to know that it is never their fault, that if something goes wrong or they feel pressured into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable then they should tell a trusted adult, for example a family member maybe, a teacher or Childline.

Education is key. It is vital our children and young people know what a healthy relationship looks like and that they have the confidence to know their own worth. And that exploitation is never, ever their fault.

To help address the problem the NSPCC is calling on the Government to provide proper training to teachers. But we as parents and carers have a responsibility too. You know your child best. Are they online more than usual? Have they become withdrawn or secretive? Are they given to outbursts of anger? These could be just some of the signs that something is wrong.

Let them know you are there. It is difficult, I know, as it is such an emotive issue. But the NSPCC’s Helpline can help you start the conversation.

The NSPCC helpline is on 0808 800 5000. Childline is on 0800 1111.