A failure to grasp how technology and social media is being used to coerce, control, blackmail and track the movements of children as young as 11 by “county lines” drug gangs has seen an epidemic of child criminal exploitation spiral out of control in the UK. “For the past seven or eight years we have been warning the government, the authorities, teachers, anyone who would listen, that technology is the central organising feature of the county lines business model,” said Sheldon Thomas, a consultant on gang behaviour through his organisation Gangsline. “Social media and smartphones made kids easy pickings for drug gangs and once they use this technology to track and control children it is very hard, often impossible, to extract them from this world,” he said. Last week the National Crime Agency (NCA) revealed that the scale of the county lines trade, in which criminal networks use children to funnel drugs from cities to towns and rural areas, was far greater than previously thought. New figures from the NCA show the trade has grown into a £500m industry.