Online profiles are leaving young children more vulnerable to grooming, a Portsmouth academic has claimed.
Dr Lisa Sugiura, a criminology lecturer at Portsmouth University, said the wealth of information openly available about users makes it easier for offenders to build a trusted relationship.
Her comments come after a vigilante group posed as a 13-year-old girl on WhatsApp to catch pervert Ian Skittlethorpe.
The Gosport resident, 58, avoided jail despite urging the girl - a fake profile set up by Dark Justice - to send naked photos.
Speaking to The News, Dr Sugiura said grooming on social media had become a ‘massive issue’ but said the ease of children creating an online profile was a danger.
She said: ‘These applications usually have age restrictions but these can be easily bypassed.
‘What is different about social media is that online groomers can research and find out the child’s interests through their profile.
‘This means they can build up a trusted relationship with the child.’
Dr Sugiura added that even though offenders were using social media to speak to children online, in the majority of child sexual abuse cases the offender is already known to the victim.
She and her team are involved in researching figures around cyber crime to help them understand what can be done to prevent it.
During the trial Portsmouth Crown Court heard the group had created several false accounts to pose as young girls between the ages of 11 and 15.
Dr Sugiura warned though there is a danger of vigilante groups hindering criminal investigations by using similar tactics to the police.
She said: ‘You could even have them talking to each other online without realising it. The problem is they do not have any communication with each other.
‘Unfortunately undertaking this kind of work is not always going to collect evidence that would be admissable in court.
‘It’s all about proving intent which can be difficult. Online grooming can really be a grey area.’
She added: ‘Vigilante groups do mean well but they are not trained like the police.
‘If they are not working with the police there is a risk that they could hinder operations. They might scare offenders off or make them go undercover completely.’
Police found 13 indecent images on Skittlethorpe’s phone.
In court he admitted 10 counts of possessing indecent images, one count of posession of extreme pornography and one of distributing one indecent image.
He was handed an 80-week prison term suspended for two years, was ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register for 10 years, was given a sexual harm prevention order and must complete a sex offenders’ group programme.