Key legislation for online abuse
Across the UK, criminal and civil legislation aims to prevent a range of abusive activities online including:
- improper use of a public communications network
- sending indecent, offensive, false or threatening communications
- sending private sexual photos or videos of another person without their consent.
Online harassment and victimisation
Throughout the UK, the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to make improper use of a public communications network. Section 127 specifically makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.
In England and Wales, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety.
In Northern Ireland, the Malicious Communications (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 sets out this offence.
> Find out more about the legislation to prevent bullying and cyberbullying
Online sexual abuse
Across the UK, the legislation setting out sexual offences also applies to online child sexual abuse, including:
- sexual communication with a child
- causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity
- causing a child to watch a sexual act
- paying for sexual services of a child
- causing or inciting sexual exploitation of a child
- engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child.
Trafficking and modern slavery legislation across the UK makes it an offence to traffic and/or enslave children for sexual exploitation and makes provisions for sentencing offenders. These can also apply to trafficking children for online sexual exploitation.
> Find out more about the legislation for child sexual abuse
> Find out more about the legislation for child sexual exploitation
> Find more information about the legislation for child trafficking
Young people might exchange sexual messages and self-generated sexual images or videos through a mobile phone network or the internet (sexting).
> Find out more about the legislation for sexting
Throughout the UK, criminal and sexual offence legislation makes it an offence to groom a child and meeting a child following sexual grooming.
> Find out more about the legislation to prevent child sexual abuse
Legal responsibilities for website hosts and social media platforms
In England and Wales, the Defamation Act 2013 makes the website host responsible for removing defamatory material posted to a site.
Section 103 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 requires social media platforms across the UK to follow a code of practice which sets out the actions they must take to protect individuals from bullying, intimidation and insulating behaviour online.
The Online Safety Act 2023 received Royal Assent in October 2023. It sets out a regulatory framework to protect children from online harms in the UK. The framework will require companies to:
- take action to prevent illegal online content and activity that threatens the safety of children
- ensure that children who use their services are not exposed to harmful content and activity.
It also establishes Ofcom as the independent regulator responsible for implementing, overseeing and enforcing the regulatory framework and raising awareness about online safety. Ofcom is taking a phased approach to producing and consulting on codes and guidance for companies on complying with the new duties (Ofcom, 2023).
In the interim, the DCMS and Home Office have published voluntary codes on tackling online child sexual exploitation and abuse and terrorist content and activity online (DCMS and Home Office, 2020b).
The UK Home Office has published guidance aimed at tech firms, the Voluntary principles to counter online child sexual exploitation and abuse. The guidance is comprised of 11 actions that online companies should take to tackle online sexual exploitation, including on tackling child sexual abuse material, online grooming and livestreaming of child sexual abuse. The guidance was developed in collaboration with the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA (Home Office, 2021).
The Information Commissioner's Office's (ICO) Children's Code (or Age Appropriate Design Code) sets out 15 standards that providers of online products or services likely to be accessed by children should comply with. The code explains how providers can design services that appropriately safeguard children's personal data and comply with data protection and privacy laws (Information Commissioner's Office, 2021).
Video sharing platforms are required to comply with the Video-sharing Platform (VSP) regulation to protect users from harmful content. The regulation includes a requirement for VSPs to take appropriate measures to protect children from content that might impair their physical, mental or moral development (Ofcom, 2021).
Across the UK, statutory guidance highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect including online abuse:
There is also more specific guidance for people who work with children about safeguarding children from online abuse.
Keeping children safe from online abuse
The ITU (International Telecommunication Union) has published child online protection guidelines. These guidelines provide a framework that supports the development of effective online child protection measures. They include specific resources for:
- the technology industry
- policy makers
- parents, carers and educators
The UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) has produced a framework (PDF) for people who work with children across the UK that highlights the digital skills and knowledge children need to stay safe online. It includes discussion around:
- online relationships
- online reputation
- online bullying (UKCIS, 2020a).
In addition, UKCIS has published a digital resilience framework designed to help organisations consider and support digital resilience for individuals and groups (UKCIS, 2020b).
UKCIS also provides guidance about online safeguarding in early years settings for managers and practitioners (UKCIS, 2019).
In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has published non-statutory guidance on teaching online safety in school (PDF). (DfE, 2023)
The Home Office has developed an Online abuse and bullying prevention guide (PDF) for those who work with young people in England and Wales. This aims to help them understand the types of online abuse, its consequences and where to go for help. Topics covered include:
- threatening behaviour
- online grooming (Home Office, 2015).
The Department of Education Northern Ireland provides Internet and WiFi guidance which includes a range of advice on how internet technology can be used safely in schools. Topics covered include:
- online safety
- mobile and digital devices
- guidance on using the internet safely (Department of Education, 2021).
Education Scotland's Parentzone provides resources for parents and carers on understanding risks to children's safety online and may be useful for professionals who work with children (Education Scotland, 2021).
Our online safety elearning course helps people who work with children across the UK understand what they need to do to safeguard children online.
> Take our online safety training course online
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has published an Online media literacy strategy, which aims to educate and empower internet users across the UK to manage their online safety (DCMS, 2021b).
In England and Wales, the Home Office has published the Tackling child sexual abuse strategy which sets out how to prevent, tackle and respond to child sexual abuse that occurs online and offline (Home Office, 2021b).
In Northern Ireland, the Online safety strategy and action plan aims to educate and empower children and young people online. It sets out three commitments to:
- create a sustainable online safety infrastructure
- educate children and young people, their parents and carers, and those who work with them
- develop evidence-informed quality standards for online safety provision
(Department of Health, 2021).
In Scotland, the National action plan on internet safety for children and young people (PDF) highlights the government’s commitment to:
- give everybody the skills, knowledge and understanding to help children and young people stay safe online
- inspire safe and responsible use and behaviour
- create a safer online environment
(Scottish Government, 2017).
In Wales, the Online safety action plan for children and young people in Wales (PDF) is designed for all professionals working with children and highlights the government's commitments around:
- providing advice and support
- working with UK wide partners
- promoting online safety
- keeping guidance up to date, to reflect changes in technology
- supporting research into children's internet use
- providing relevant training to practitioners
(Welsh Government, 2018).
Keep up to date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research.