GIRLS in Essex are over three times more likely to be the victims of online grooming than boys, sparking calls for more protection by charity bosses.

Essex Police recorded 266 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 185 crimes – 145 of whom were female and 40 male.

Figures also shows that where the age of the female victim was recorded, 98 were aged between 12 and 15, and 33 were under 11.

The NSPCC obtained the information from 43 police forces through a freedom of information request.

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.

However, the NSPCC estimates more than 95 per cent of such offences are committed on the internet.

It is calling on the Government to act to lives up to its ambition of making the UK the safest place in the world for a child to be online.

It said the Online Safety Bill must be strengthened to stop grooming and abuse.

Head of policy Anna Edmundson 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 spokesman said: “Our new laws will be the most comprehensive in the world in protecting children online.

“Failing firms will face hefty fines or have their sites blocked, and we will have the power to make senior managers criminally liable for failing to protect children.”