Children as young as five are among thousands of under-18s who have been accused of sexual offences against other children, according to new statistics.
Experts believe the phenomenon of child-on-child sexual offences is being driven in part by increased access to explicit material online.
The figures, obtained by the NSPCC, show that between 2009 and 2012 police dealt with more than 5,000 cases in which under-18s were accused of sexual offences against other children. The cases included allegations of rape and sexual assault, and the data showed that almost all of the alleged offenders were boys. In all, there were 4,562 individuals accused of offences, 98 per cent of whom were male.
Claire Lilley, a policy adviser at the NSPCC, said: "We are treating an increasing number of children who have carried out online grooming, harassment in chatrooms and 'sexting'. We hope our findings will ring alarm bells with the authorities that this is a problem which needs urgent attention." She added:"In some cases older children are attacking younger ones and in other cases it's sexual violence within a teenage relationship. While more research needs to be done on this problem, we know that technology and easy access to sexual material is warping young people's views of what is 'normal' or acceptable behaviour."
The figures were collected through Freedom of Information requests to 34 of 43 police forces across England and Wales. Nine forces were unable to report the correct data needed, the NSPCC said.