INTERNET predators are targeting and abusing children in record numbers.

A freedom of information request by the NSPCC revealed there were 101 child sex crimes involving the internet in Essex in 2016/17.

This was up 53 per cent on the previous year and has prompted the children’s charity to demand action.

Peter Wanless, chief executive, said: “These figures confirm our fears offenders are exploiting the internet to target children for their own dark deeds.

“Children also tell our Childline service that they are being targeted online by adults who pose as children and try to meet them, or persuade them to perform sexual acts on webcams, before blackmailing them.

“We cannot idly sit by knowing more innocent young people are being harmed online.

“Today’s worrying data leaves the next government with no choice but to urgently address this issue. We are calling on them to force internet companies and social media sites to adhere to rules that keep their young users safe.”

It is the second year police have been required to ‘cyber flag’’ crimes involving the internet.

Nationwide the most common age for victims of online child sex crimes was 13.

The NSPCC is demanding an independent regulator is appointed to hold social media companies to account and the new Government draw up enforceable safeguarding standards, Also children automatically being given safer social media accounts with default privacy settings to protect and forces provide mandatory training on solving and preventing this area of crime.

A spokesman for Essex Police said: "There is no greater priority for Essex Police than protecting vulnerable children and adults in our county.

"Our force takes all reports of sexual offences seriously and we investigate them robustly.

"Our force, like constabularies across the country, have seen an increase in intelligence and reported crime in relation to online offending of a sexual nature.

"This is in part due to improved law enforcement awareness, which means more offences are being recorded and investigated and as a result more offenders are being placed before the courts.

"Offenders have for many years exploited the internet and Social Media in order to contact, form inappropriate relationships and groom young and other vulnerable people.

"Our specialist teams continue to work hard to protect and safeguard victims and proactively target offenders, bringing them to justice.

"We have also invested heavily in training all of our officers, not just our specialist teams, to tackle this issue and we are continually striving to improve ways of identifying and recording internet-enabled sexual crime.

"Essex Police has formed strong partnerships with other agencies – including schools, social care and the health sector – who, together with parents and carers all have a part to play in educating our children around safe and responsible internet usage.

"Essex Police support any measures or legislation that helps to protect young and other vulnerable people.

"If you have information about such crimes, we would ask you to come forward.

"Please contact us directly on 101 and ask to speak to a specialist officer within our child abuse investigation teams.

"You can also report crimes anonymously to crime fighting charity, Crimestoppers, on 0800 555111."