Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has warned of a “startling and shocking” increase in referrals of online child abuse material during the lockdown.
He said the number of notifications to gardaí had increased by 26% between 1 March and 31 May this year.
Speaking at the Policing Authority he indicated there would be an increase in resources to the dedicated garda units tasked with combating this crime.
“We have further investments we want to make in our online child exploitation unit, which is part of the National Protective Services Bureau, and also our Cyber Crime Bureau - it’s a recognition of the amount of child abuse imagery online.
“One of the startling and shocking statistics, for the period this year 1 March to 31 May, is we’ve seen a 26% increase in notifications on child sexual abuse material on social media platforms.”
He added: “That’s a shocking statistic and it’s also born out internationally as well. Ireland is not unique in this; this is a time of considerable risk for children.”
The notifications were sent to Gardaí by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US and can relate to victims or suspects.
Child safety experts have raised concerns about the impact of lockdown, with people, including children, living more online and at risk of being preyed upon.
Staffing issues, particularly in the Cyber Crime Bureau, which carries out the forensic examination of digital devices, including for child abuse imagery, have been repeatedly raised.
Last October, officers in this unit said the bureau currently had 32 members, but that the commissioner had approved a plan to bring the number to 120 in the next two years, which would also include staffing new divisional cyber units.
Commissioner Harris told the authority that certain crimes had “increased exponentially”, including online abuse imagery, cyber crime, domestic violence and sexual violence.
The EU police agency Europol has said the global impact of Covid-19 meant that both children and adults were spending more time online and that children were having more unsupervised internet access.
It said this meant children were more exposed to offenders through online gaming, chat group apps, phishing attempts by email and unsolicited contact via social media.
It said children were more inclined towards making explicit material, and exchanging them with peers, with some eventually reaching child sex offenders.
*Garda Child Sexual Abuse Helpline 1800 555 222;
*Childline 1800 66 66 66, text 50101 or chat online at Childline.ie 24 hours a day;