By Sarah Rutty, Child Safety Online Project Officer
Accessing and engaging with harmful content online can be damaging to children’s wellbeing, leaving them scared and confused. It can also influence their behaviour or what they believe. But what is harmful online content? And what can we do to help keep children safe from online harm?
What is online harm?
Children and young people may be exposed to or engage with many types of harmful content online.
Some harmful content is illegal, like child sexual abuse images or content promoting terrorism. Other material might not be illegal but can still cause children harm, such as content promoting eating disorders. Content might be harmful to children and young people because it isn’t age or stage appropriate. It may be overly influential, causing children to develop unrealistic expectations for themselves or others.
Harmful content may be user-generated or created using Artificial Intelligence (AI). There is increasing evidence that AI is being used to generate indecent images of children (IWF, 2023; UCKIS, 2023). Child sexual abuse images are illegal in the UK, regardless of how it is produced.
There are well established legal mechanisms in place to tackle and remove illegal online content. This means children and young people are less likely to be exposed to illegal content than legal but harmful content, although they may still come across it.
How are children exposed to online harm?
There are many ways children and young people could see harmful content online. Online platforms use algorithms which suggest new content based on what is popular or what users have previously interacted with. This means that suggested content can quickly lead children and young people to content that may not be age-appropriate.
Children and young people may also come across content accidentally, when doing something else online. They might be sent harmful content by others. Or they might actively seek it out – for example, if they are exploring their sexuality online they may come across harmful and age or stage-inappropriate content.
The impact of online harms
It’s important to remember that all children and young people are different and what’s harmful to one child may not be to another. The impact of online harms can depend on factors including the child’s age, stage and maturity.
Experiencing harmful content can have a negative impact on children’s wellbeing. They may feel:
- scared for their own, or others’, safety
- confused or worried
- upset or uncomfortable
- excited or view the content as harmless
- compelled to share the content.
Children’s and young people’s behaviour, opinions and beliefs can also be influenced by harmful content.
How can we prevent children and young people experiencing online harm?
There are lots of measures you can put in place to help reduce the risk of children experiencing online harm.
Start by considering how your organisation and the children you work with currently use technology and access the internet. Assess any potential risks and set out how you will respond to them.
Your online safety policy statement should set out your commitment to keeping children safe online and your expectations about how children, young people, staff and volunteers should use the internet safely.
Make sure everyone in your organisation is aware of the risks of online abuse and harm; and that the children you work or volunteer with are able to identify that content may be harmful, know not to share it with others, and know how to seek help and support if they come across anything that worries them.
Technical solutions, such as filtering and monitoring systems, can also help manage access to harmful content.
How can we support children and young people who have experienced online harm?
A child or young person seeing harmful content online is always a safeguarding concern, and you should follow your organisation’s policies and procedures.
Whether a child has sought out the content intentionally or come across it accidentally, you should always offer them support. What this entails will depend on the nature of the harmful content, the context of the situation and the individual child or young person’s needs. Remember, if a child or young person has actively sought out the content, this may indicate there’s another concern in the young person’s life.
Depending on the type of harmful content a child or young person has seen, you should:
- help them understand or process what they’ve seen
- answer questions or allay fears or worries
- make sure they have a safe space to talk in the future, if needed, rather than sharing harmful content with friends
- support them to block or report content to stop them encountering it again
- consider how you can help them to stay safe online in future
- make sure they know who to get help from if they ever see anything that’s worrying or upsetting
- provide support for any underlying issues.
How can we prevent online content from causing further harm?
It’s important to take action to prevent harmful content from being shared further. Children, or adults, may do this because they want to warn others or raise awareness, or they may think the content is harmless or not consider the impact on others.
Illegal content should be reported and only deleted when this is agreed with the appropriate authorities. In the interim you should disconnect the device the image is on from WiFi and data, turn off the device and store it somewhere secure.
There are specific measures in place to help respond to different types of illegal harmful content. For example:
- the government has created an online form for reporting online material promoting terrorism or extremism
- the IWF has a form for reporting child sexual abuse images.
Where content is legal but harmful it may be appropriate to report your concerns to the platform, delete any content that has been downloaded to a device or uploaded to cloud storage, or review your filtering and monitoring systems.
Training to help keep children safe from online harms
Our online safety training course contains lots more information about the different types of content, what the law says, what you need to do to keep children safe and how you can support children and young people affected by harmful online content.
Watch video interviews with experts, complete interactive quizzes and review example scenarios. The training course will give you the confidence you need to address online safety in your school or organisation and will help you create an action plan to keep children safe online.
About the author
Sarah Rutty is a Project Officer in the NSPCC's Child Safety Online Solutions Lab, helping adults to understand children's online experiences and how to safeguard them effectively against the risks they may encounter.
Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) (2023) How AI is being abused to create child sexual abuse imagery (PDF). [Accessed 05/12/2023].
UK Safer Internet Centre (2023) Appropriate filtering and monitoring: guide for education settings and filtering providers [Accessed 12/07/2023].