County lines: gangs using social media and online gaming to recruit children with promises of cash and phones

Experts warn that social media and online gaming are ‘exactly where exploiters want children to be’

Social media and online gaming are “the foundation of county lines recruitment,” experts have warned, and the pandemic pushed many more young and vulnerable people into online space where they can be targeted for recruitment by criminal gangs.

MPs on the Education select committee heard that family breakdown can be a major driver of exploitation, and that cuts to early intervention services have left young people more vulnerable to falling into cycles of exploitation.

While there are particular indicators which make young people more vulnerable to criminal gangs, experts say that all children are potentially at risk, due to social media and online gaming.

This comes as the British Transport Police (BTP) launches an online campaign aimed at teenage boys in parts of the country where county lines exploitation is particularly prevalent to warn them away from getting involved with the criminal networks.

MPs on the Education select committee took evidence yesterday (28 February) from four experts on the exploitation of children and county lines, where they also heard that more affluent families were being targeted.

What does 'county lines' mean?

County lines is the name given to networks of drug trafficking which tend to originate with criminal gangs in major cities, who distribute drugs to smaller towns and rural areas by recruiting young and vulnerable people in those areas to carry or sell the drugs for them.

Iryna Pona, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society, said in recent years there has been a growing concern about online grooming for criminal exploitation, with “children approached to take part in what is sold to them as a business opportunity”.

Johnny Bolderson, a senior service manager with the county lines support and rescue service at Catch22, said: “The pandemic pushed young people and vulnerable people to online gaming… exactly where exploiters and groomers want that person to be. It’s the only way they can get hold of them really in that way directly. Online gaming, social media, it’s perfect for them.”

“Social media and online gaming is the foundation of county lines recruitment,” he added.

Susannah Drury, director of policy and development at Missing People said that while there are specific factors that make certain young people more vulnerable, such as mental health issues, deprivation and exclusion from school, all children are potentially at risk due to social media.

Cuts to frontline services and early intervention have had a major impact on local authorities and their ability to spot the signs of exploitation among young people, MPs were told.

Pona said that while late intervention funding has increased, partly because of the rise in looked after children, early intervention funding including youth work and SureStart children’s centres had been cut by half, to £1.9 billion, between 2010-11 and 2020-21.

Based on research commissioned by The Children’s Society, she said: “It’s much more difficult to intervene and provide support to a young person once they are trapped in the cycles of exploitation. It’s much more difficult to get them away from that situation and also to keep them safe from those who are targeting them for exploitation. It’s much more effective to intervene early, and a lot of early intervention services in the community have disappeared, which coincides also with increased youth violence.”

Asked by MPs about the role of family breakdown in vulnerability for young people, Bolderson agreed it was a significant factor.

He said: “If you’re a young person coming home, and your mum and dad are arguing, or your mum has substance misuse issues, you will turn to your phone, you will turn to social media, you will turn to online gaming, you will turn to anyone else.

“They don’t even have to leave the house to be groomed, it could be online gaming, they can have packages of mobile phones delivered to their house, they can have weapons through their letter box to hold and drop out the window another time.

He added: “A breakdown in a family is huge, I think because it makes them extremely vulnerable. The young person will go missing, sometimes the parents wouldn’t even notice they’ve gone missing, if they’re focusing [on the breakup].

‘Who wants to make £500 this weekend?’

BTP is launching a campaign on Snapchat aimed at boys aged 13 to 15 in London, Birmingham and Liverpool to warn them away from getting involved with the criminal networks.

The force said officers have seen messages sent out by drug dealers asking “who wants to make £500 this weekend?” as they draw young people into the gangs. It warned that teenage boys as young as 13 are being lured with promises of cash, mobile phones, vapes and clothes.

Teenagers are often exploited by drug dealers to carry illegal substances by train as part of so-called county lines networks.

Since the BTP county lines taskforce was set up in late 2019 officers have arrested 2,250 suspects linked to the gangs, 40% of whom were under the age of 19. Of the under-19s only 20% have faced criminal charges because many young people are recognised as victims of exploitation.

Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, BTP’s County Lines Taskforce lead, said: “It’s not uncommon for my dedicated teams to encounter children on the railway who are being exploited to traffic drugs.

“Supported by safeguarding experts, a key priority of ours is to identify these victims and pull them out of harm’s way.

“The youngest person we’ve found being exploited in county lines activity was a boy aged 13 – in that case the couple controlling him to courier drugs were jailed for over 12 years.

“We’re relentless in our pursuit of these heartless human traffickers, and we are utilising modern slavery legislation to ensure they serve adequately lengthy jail terms.”