The number of child sex offences reported in England and Wales increased by a third last year, with an average of 113 abuse cases emerging every day.
In total, 41,457 sexual offences against under 18s were recorded by 45 police forces in 2014/15 – considerably more than the 31,238 documented a year earlier.
Where the gender of abused children was recorded, there was a ratio of four female victims to every male.
Not all forces were able to provide a breakdown of victims’ ages to the NSPCC – but at least 10,757 were aged 10 and under, including 2,409 who were younger than four years old.
When abuse committed in Scotland and Northern Ireland are included, the total number of cases rises to 45,456 – the equivalent of more than five offences every hour.
The NSPCC explained several factors could be behind the dramatic increase in cases, such as changes in how police forces record crime, the “major problems” posed by online grooming, and victims feeling more confident to speak out following high-profile abuse cases.
Peter Wanless, chief executive of the children’s charity, said: “Sexual abuse can shatter a child’s mental health. It can leave them anxious, depressed and even suicidal.”
Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, said he is beginning to work with academics to determine whether the figures mean more children are falling victim to sexual abuse.
He added: “The internet has opened up new opportunities for abusers to groom children, view indecent images and watch and direct live sexual abuse of children, and we need to understand the impact of this.”
Although the police are improving its response to allegations of sexual abuse, Mr Bailey warned: “By the time the report comes to us, the damage is done, so colleagues working in social care, education and health need to work together to stop abuse before it happens.
“Police work will continue but we ask everyone to help us by being alert to signs of abuse and sharing any concerns – however small they may seem.”