Protecting children from online abuse

Last updated: 04 Sep 2018
Introduction

Online abuse is any type of abuse that happens on the internet, facilitated through technology like computers, tablets, mobile phones and other electronic devices (Department for Education, 2018; Department of Health, 2017; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Assembly Government, 2018).

It can happen anywhere online that allows digital communication, such as:

  • social networks
  • text messages
  • messaging software
  • email
  • online chats
  • games.

Children and young people can be revictimised (experience further abuse) when abusive content is recorded, uploaded or shared by others online. This can happen if the original abuse happened online or offline.

Children and young people may experience several types of abuse online:

Children and young people can also be groomed online: perpetrators may use online platforms to build a trusting relationship with the child in order to abuse them. This abuse may happen online or the perpetrator may arrange to meet the child in person with the intention of abusing them.

Impact

Impact of online abuse

Whether abuse happens online or offline it can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s overall wellbeing. Online abuse can lead to:

  • anxiety
  • self-harm
  • eating disorders
  • suicidal thoughts (HM Government, 2017).

Research shows that cyberbullying has similar effects to offline bullying. It can lead to:

  • falling behind at school
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • other mental health difficulties.

Cyberbullying can make children feel more frightened and helpless than bullying that happens offline. Contact from cyberbullies can happen at any time, anywhere and this can make children feel like they can’t escape (Munro, 2011).

> Find out more about the impact of cyberbullying

Online child sexual abuse has as much of an impact on a child or young person as sexual abuse that takes place offline only (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017). Effects of online sexual abuse can include:

  • self-blame
  • flashbacks or intrusive thoughts
  • difficulties sleeping
  • nightmares
  • extreme tiredness
  • difficulties concentrating
  • difficulties keeping up with school work
  • behavioural problems at school
  • depression
  • low self-esteem
  • social withdrawal
  • panic attacks and anxiety
  • eating disorder or eating difficulties
  • self-harm (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

However, experiencing abuse online and/or using technology can cause additional effects:

  • young people may be afraid of sexual images being shared online or being viewed in the future, particularly if the perpetrator has made threats about sharing sexual images in order to blackmail the young person into complying with further abuse
  • being filmed can lead some young people to feel uncomfortable around cameras
  • young people who have been in constant contact with the person who abused them via digital technology can become very fatigued – especially if they were in contact during the night. They may also feel powerless and frightened.
  • some young people who were abused online feel that this made them more vulnerable to further abuse by sexualising them, leading them to drink heavily or take risks or reducing their sense of self-worth and confidence (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).
“Within a week, we were, like, in what I considered to be a relationship and, erm, first of all, it started off just normal, as any, like, relationship would, just telling each other we loved each other and stuff, and then it turned into, erm, he would force me to send pictures to him, like…It was over the internet, but I felt like it was forced. If I didn’t, he would, like, have a go at me. Erm, he would ring me at 3am, like, in the morning, and I was in Year 7 at the time, so obviously, like, I needed my sleep. If I went to sleep and didn’t stay up and wait for him, he would have a go at me the next day, so I used to stay up until 3am just to wait for his call and things like that…So, the whole time I was with him, I was so nervous that I was going to get in trouble. My grades went really low and my attendance was really low and, like, I started losing a lot of weight.”

Girl aged 17 

 

> Find out more about the impact of child sexual abuse

Speaking out

A child or young person may be reluctant to speak out about the abuse they've experienced online.

They may:

  • not understand that they are being abused
  • feel dirty and ashamed
  • be too embarrassed to share the sexual details of what’s happening to them
  • be afraid because of threats of violence from the abuser
  • have been told by the abuser that they won’t be taken seriously
  • have established an emotional attachment with the abuser and don’t want to get them into trouble (NSPCC and O2, 2016).

They may also blame themselves for the abuse and not expect to get any support. This might especially be the case if they have experienced unsupportive approaches from school, peers and family (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

Recognising

Recognising online abuse

It can be easier for perpetrators to initiate, maintain and escalate abuse through digital technology, because it gives them:

  • easier access to children and young people, through social media and digital messaging
  • anonymity – it's relatively easy to create anonymous profiles on online platforms, or pretend to be another child
  • children may have a false sense of safety online which means they're more likely to talk to strangers than in the offline world (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

Children can be at risk of online abuse from people they know as well as from strangers. Online abuse may be part of abuse that's taking place in the real world – such as bullying or an abusive relationship. Or the abuse may happen online only.

> Find out more about bullying and cyberbullying

A child who is experiencing abuse online may:

  • spend much more or much less time than usual online, texting, gaming or using social media
  • be withdrawn, upset or outraged after using the internet or texting
  • be secretive about who they’re talking to and what they're doing online or on their mobile phone
  • have lots of new phone numbers, texts or e-mail addresses on their mobile phone, laptop or tablet.

Risks and vulnerability factors

There's no clear set of factors that make children and young people more likely to be affected by online abuse. Different circumstances in a child's life may combine to make them more at risk. But some factors can make children and young people more vulnerable to abuse.

Age

Pre- and early teens are an especially vulnerable age for children online. From 11-12, children start to explore and take risks online, but they haven't yet developed the skills needed to recognise danger or build resilience against things that might upset them (Munro, 2011; Livingstone and Palmer, 2012).

Children aged 9-16 are particularly vulnerable to:

  • seeing sexual images online
  • seeing online content that promotes potentially harmful behaviour, such as pro-anorexia or self-harm sites
  • being bullied online (Mascheroni and Cuman, 2014).

At this age, young people may be starting to explore their sexuality too. They might find adult pornography online or start online relationships with people they don’t know (Munro, 2011; Livingstone and Palmer, 2012).

Teenagers may be more vulnerable to cyberbullying than younger children (NSPCC, 2015).

Gender

Boys and girls may differ in the types of risks they take online and the risks they are exposed to.

EUKids Online research (Livingstone et al, 2009) found that boys are more likely to:

  • look for offensive or violent pornography online, or be sent links to pornographic websites
  • meet someone offline who they have talked to online
  • give out personal information.

The research also found that girls are more likely to:

  • be upset by violent or offensive online pornographic content
  • chat online with people they don’t know
  • receive unwanted sexual comments
  • be asked for personal information (Livingstone et al, 2009).

Research also suggests that girls are more likely to experience ongoing cyberbullying than boys (Cross et al, 2009).

Vulnerability to online grooming

Loneliness, social isolation and family problems may make young people more vulnerable to being groomed online (NSPCC and O2, 2016). Groomers may initially be attentive and sympathetic, which means a young person who is experiencing difficulties may quickly see them as a trusted source of support, especially if they are pretending to be another child.

Special educational needs or disability

Children with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities are particularly vulnerable to online abuse (Livingstone and Palmer, 2012). A child with SEN or a disability may:

  • have low self-confidence, seeing themself as an 'outsider'
  • lack strong peer networks and be less likely to tell a friend when they experience upsetting things online
  • have more unsupervised time online, with fewer structures and boundaries (Livingstone and Palmer, 2012).
Responding

Responding to online abuse

Reporting

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

> Find out how to report concerns about online images on our sexting pages

Responding to cases of online abuse

When responding to cases of online abuse, it's important for adults to understand the impact it can have on a young person’s wellbeing. They should:

  • listen calmly to what the child has to say
  • remember that the young person may be embarrassed and/or ashamed
  • be non-judgmental and make sure the child knows that abuse is never their fault.

It's also important for adults to understand that online and offline abuse are often entwined and ask tactful questions to help them understand the context of the abuse. This will enable them to provide the child with the right support.

Parents should be informed about cases of online abuse unless to do so would put a child at further risk of harm. They may need additional support to understand what has happened and how best to help their child.

In cases where the child or young person has gone to the police about online abuse, it's important for them to:

  • fully explain the legal process in a way the child or young person can understand
  • be friendly, reduce formalities as much as possible and make the child feel comfortable
  • offer the child choice where possible, for example:
    • how they want to give evidence
    • the gender of the key police officer(s) involved
    • what other professionals they would like to be involved
  • provide a consistent officer to work with the child throughout the case
  • keep in contact with the child and their family regularly and provide regular updates on the progress of the case (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).
Prevention

Preventing online abuse

To prevent child abuse online, it’s essential for those who work with children and young people to help them:

  • learn about the risks associated with online activities
  • develop the awareness and skills needed to keep safe online
  • learn about healthy relationships, abuse and consent from a young age
  • know where to go for help – and recognise that they can help themselves too
  • know how to report unacceptable activity or behaviour (UNICEF, 2011; Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017).

It’s also important to support parents to know how to keep their children safe online.

Keeping children safe online

While the internet is often a positive part of children’s lives, young people can be vulnerable to abuse and inappropriate content in the online world. There are actions parents, carers and organisations can take to keep online spaces safe for children. Our Keeping children safe online elearning course can help you gain the skills to act appropriately and confidently to protect the children you work with from online abuse.

> Take our Keeping children safe online training

We’ve produced a variety of resources you can share with parents and carers to help them keep children safe online:

Parents and carers can also get free online safety advice from O2's friendly experts in person at an O2 store. An O2 guru can help set up parental controls or teach parents and carers how to make a phone safe for a child. Sessions can be booked online.

Building children’s online safety skills

It’s important that children are given the knowledge and skills needed to keep themselves safe online, to build their own resilience (UNICEF, 2011; Livingstone and Palmer, 2012).

We’ve created guides for parents and carers on:

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), in partnership with the NSPCC, has developed a framework for anyone who works with children and young people to support them to be safe in the digital world (UKCCIS, 2018).

Areas covered in the guide include:

  • self-image and identity
  • online relationships
  • online reputation
  • online bullying
  • managing online information
  • health, wellbeing and lifestyle
  • privacy and security
  • copyright and ownership.

(UKCCIS, 2018)

We deliver online safety workshops for parents and carers, in partnership with O2, across the UK. If you’re a school, please email schools@nspcc.org.uk for more information.

If you're a community group or local business, please email parentworkshops@nspcc.org.uk to find out if the workshops are available in your area.

Preventing online grooming

Our Stop TIME Online activity pack (NSPCC Cymru/Wales and Swansea University, 2017) gives professionals and young people a better understanding of the strategies online groomers use to build trusting relationships with young people. The materials can be used during 1-to-1 or small group work sessions with children and young people aged 8 to 18 who are at risk of online grooming.

We’re currently piloting the activity pack, but we hope to roll it out across the NSPCC and possibly further afield. If you'd like more information about our activity pack, email PublicAffairs.Cymru@nspcc.org.uk.

Direct work

Direct work with children who have experienced online abuse

Many of the approaches used to help children who have experienced offline abuse can be used to support those who have experienced online abuse.

Interventions should focus on helping children to build trust again and make sense of their experience (UNICEF, 2011). Parents may also need help to understand their child’s online experiences and how they can support them.

Services to help children

Our therapeutic services can help children and young people who have experienced online abuse move forward.

Letting the Future In (LTFI) is an evidence-based programme helps children who have been sexually abused get back on track – including online sexual abuse. The programme has also been adapted for children age 4-19 with a disability.

We evaluated LTFI and learned that it resulted in positive changes for children, including:

  • improved mood
  • better confidence
  • reduction in guilt and self-blame
  • reduced depression, anxiety and anger
  • improved sleep patterns
  • better understanding of appropriate sexual behaviour (NSPCC, 2016).

We’re supporting other organisations to deliver Letting the Future In. This includes successfully training social care professionals to deliver therapeutic work.

> Find out more about Letting the Future In on the NSPCC website

Schools

The use of technologies can support and enhance learning, but pupils need to be taught:

  • how to use them in a safe and responsible way
  • how to behave appropriately online
  • what to do if they are worried about something they see online or that is sent to them electronically.

School is a good place to teach children and young people how to stay safe online.

School ethos, policy and training

All staff and volunteers should:

  • read and understand the school’s child protection and online safety policy
  • understand what action to take if you have concerns about a child
  • complete training that covers online safety, such as the NSPCC’s Keeping children safe online elearning course
  • understand and follow the process for reporting child protection concerns
  • make sure children know they can talk to you if they have a problem
  • maintain a professional code of conduct in your own use of technology and online behaviour, including:
    • keeping personal information private
    • considering the long term implications of content posted online
    • not engaging with pupils on social networking sites or through mobile devices
    • not uploading or posting inappropriate, offensive or illegal content on any online space.

The nominated child protection lead should:

  • take lead responsibility for child protection, including online safety, in liaison with the head and governors
  • attend advanced training to enable you to respond effectively to safeguarding concerns
  • attend any inter-agency child protection training
  • read and understand the national guidance about online safety
  • raise awareness of online safety with staff and volunteers
  • support staff and volunteers who raise concerns about a child’s safety online
  • make sure children know they can talk to you if they have a problem.

The head and the governors should:

  • ensure all staff read and understand the school’s child protection and online safety policies
  • make sure the school’s online safety policy and procedures are kept up to date and include:
    • a definition of online abuse
    • information about the signs and indicators of online abuse
    • information about what staff and volunteers should do if they have concerns about a child
  • read and understand local and national guidance about online safety
  • ensure all staff and volunteers receive regular online safety training
  • put support systems in place for children who have experienced online abuse
  • ensure that the school has appropriate web filtering systems in place to prevent children from viewing inappropriate material
  • create and implement acceptable use policies and online codes of conduct for both pupils and school staff
  • ensure that messages around online safety are embedded in the school’s curriculum
    have a robust procedure for dealing with incidents of online abuse
  • make sure children know they can approach any member of staff or volunteer if they have a problem and that they will be listened to and taken seriously
  • promote sources of help such as Childline around school so children know where to go to get help if they don’t feel able to talk to a trusted adult
  • provide parents with information about online abuse including what action the school is taking to prevent it and support children affected by it.

Responding to online safety issues

All staff and volunteers should:

  • notice any signs that a child is at risk or has experienced online abuse and respond appropriately
  • listen to children’s concerns and respond calmly and non-judgmentally
  • never promise to keep what a child tells you a secret – explain that you need to tell someone else who can help
  • follow the school’s child protection and online safety policies and procedures when you have concerns about a child
  • report your concerns to the school’s nominated child protection lead as soon as possible
  • make clear records of concerns following the school’s procedures.

The nominated child protection lead should:

  • receive concerns shared by other school members of staff
  • gather as much information as possible about the situation, considering:
    • content - has the child been exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material?
      This includes online pornography, violence and hate sites, substance abuse and websites that are pro-anorexia/self-harm/suicide
    • contact - has the child been subjected to harmful online interaction with other users?
      This includes grooming, cyber bullying and identity theft (including social media profiles and passwords)
    • conduct – has the child been exposed to online behaviour that increases the likelihood of or causes harm?
  • decide what action to take in line with the school’s child protection and online safety policies and national guidance
  • assess the seriousness of concerns and share information with agencies such as the police or children’s services as appropriate
  • consider whether and how to secure and preserve evidence of activity that breaks the law - staff should never copy, print or share sexual images of a child or young person (Childnet International, 2016; UKCCIS, 2017)
  • report any illegal online content to CEOP and/or the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) (CEOP, 2018; IWF, 2018)
  • keep clear and robust records about all reported child protection concerns and their impact on the child
  • attend any relevant inter-agency child protection meetings
  • involve parents and keep them informed throughout the process (unless doing so would put a child at further risk of harm)
  • make sure the child understands what action you are taking and why.

The head and the governors should:

  • ensure children who have experienced online abuse are able to access the right support, for example by arranging school counselling or contacting external support services
    ensure robust procedures for dealing with online safety incidents are followed
    support the nominated child protection lead with the referral process and challenge decisions if you feel a child is at serious risk of harm and not receiving appropriate help
    inform parents and carers of what’s happening (unless doing so would put a child at further risk of harm)
    review policies and procedures in the light of any lessons learned from a child protection incident.

Promoting online safety

Online safety should be embedded in the school curriculum so that children and young people are made aware of the risks of the online world and encouraged to use technology safely. Talking to young people about healthy relationships can help create positive social norms and challenge unhealthy behaviours.

This can be done through:

  • information technology (IT)/computing lessons
  • personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) (England), personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) (Northern Ireland), and personal and social education (PSE) (Wales and Scotland) and relationships)
  • relationships and sex education lessons (RSE)
  • assemblies, for example inviting police officers into schools to interact with children and deliver messages on how to keep safe online (Coffey and Lloyd, 2014).

It’s vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can speak out about any problems they are experiencing. Children of all ages need support to identify online abuse and to speak out if something is wrong.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools helps primary school children understand abuse in all its forms and know how to protect themselves.

We’ve worked with the PSHE Association to create lesson plans for children aged 10-16 on personal safety and healthy relationships (NSPCC and PSHE Association, 2018). This includes topics such as online safety and online friendships.

Our Share Aware lesson plans and teaching resources will help you teach children to keep themselves safe online.

Parents also play a big part in keeping their children safe online so need to be aware of existing and emerging technologies their children are potentially using.

Net Aware is a useful guide for parents on the types of social media their children might be using and their levels of safety.

References and resources

References and resources

CEOP (2018) CEOP reporting [Accessed 17/09/18].

Childnet International (2016) Cyberbullying: prevent, understand, and respond: guidance for schools (PDF). [London]: Childnet International

Coffey, A. and Lloyd, T. (2014) Real voices: child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester (PDF). [Manchester]: Greater Manchester Police Force.

Cross, E.J., et al (2009) Virtual violence: protecting children from cyberbullying. London: Beatbullying.

Department for Education (DfE) (2018) Working together to safeguard children: a guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).

Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Department of Health.

Hamilton-Giachritsis, C., et al (2017) "Everyone deserves to be happy and safe": a mixed methods study exploring how online and offline child sexual abuse impact young people and how professionals respond to it. London: NSPCC.

HM Government (2017). Internet safety strategy - green paper. [London]: HM Government.

Internet Watch Foundation (2018) Make a report [Accessed 18/09/18].

Livingstone, S. and Haddon, L. (2009) EU kids online: findings, methods, recommendations. London: London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Livingstone S. and Palmer, T. (2012) Identifying vulnerable children online and what strategies can help them: report of a seminar arranged by the UKCCIS Evidence Group on 24th January, 2012 (PDF). [Exeter, Devon]: UK Council for Child internet Safety (UKCCIS).

Mascheroni, G. and Cuman, A. (2014) Net children go mobile: final report: deliverables D6.4 and D5.2. Milan: Educatt.

Munro, E.R. (2011) The protection of children online: a brief scoping review to identify vulnerable groups (PDF). [London]: Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.

NSPCC (2015) "Always there when I need you": Childline review: what’s affected children in April 2014 - March 2015. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC (2016) Letting the Future In: a therapeutic intervention for children affected by sexual abuse and their carers (PDF). London: NSPCC.

NSPCC and O2 (2016) “What should I do?”: NSPCC helplines: responding to children’s and parents’ concerns about sexual content online .[London]: NSPCC.

NSPCC and PSHE Association (2018) Making sense of relationships. London: NSPCC.

NSPCC Cymru/Wales and Swansea University (2017) Stop TIME online: an anti-online grooming activity pack. [Swansea]: NSPCC.

Scottish Government (2014) National guidance for child protection in Scotland (PDF). Edinburgh: The Scottish Government.

UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) (2017a) Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people (PDF) (London) UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)

UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) (2018) Education for a connected world: a framework to equip children and young people for digital life (PDF). [London]: UK Council for Child Internet Safety.

UNICEF (2011). Child safety online: global strategies and challenges (PDF). UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.

Welsh Assembly Government (2018). An online safety action plan for children and young people in Wales (PDF). Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get advice from the website about:

> Find out more about sexting and getting abusive images removed from the internet

You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Elearning

Our elearning courses can help develop your understanding of how to protect children from abuse:

Related NSPCC resources

Read our reports and briefings on:

Further reading

For further reading about online abuse, search the NSPCC Library using the keywords: "online abuse" "online grooming" "online safety" "cyberbullying" "sexting" "child abuse images".

If you need more specific information, please contact our Information Service.

Read our report about how young people navigate opportunities and risks in their online lives (PDF).

Read our NSPCC helplines report about children’s and parents’ concerns about sexual content online.