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.
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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- be withdrawn, upset or outraged after using the internet or texting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.
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).
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).