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Why language matters: how referring to online ‘friends’ can mask safeguarding concerns

Last updated: 04 Apr 2024 Topics: Blog
A young person uses their phone
“I'm worried about this friend I made online. We’re friends online but have never met. Recently they asked me to watch things together online. I didn’t think anything of it until they started making me watch online content that was explicit and meant for adults. I feel trapped.”

Childline counselling session with a boy aged 13

Friendships are an important part of life for any child, allowing them to feel connected, understood, and cared for.

Children are placing increasing value on the internet as a place to form and maintain friendships.1 But meeting and connecting with others online also comes with risks, including potential grooming and online abuse.

Our analysis of Childline counselling sessions has shown that children sometimes refer to individuals they’ve met online as their friends. But when the counsellor digs a little deeper, it becomes clear that the child knows very little about this person and that in some cases the person is a risk to the child.

It’s essential for professionals to remain curious when discussing children’s online relationships and to consider whether the term ‘friend’ could be masking safeguarding concerns.

How the term ‘friend’ could mask safeguarding concerns

Imbalances of power can be overlooked

When we think of the term ‘friend,’ we think of a relationship of equality, support and mutual trust where the people are well known to each other. This means that a potentially exploitative situation can be overlooked when a child uses the term to describe someone they’ve met online.

For example, the term could mask an imbalance of power, such as that brought about through differences in age, gender, cognitive ability or developmental stage. While this power imbalance can happen offline too, it can be harder to detect online, where a person can more easily pose as someone they’re not.2

In assuming that the online relationship is healthy because the child considers the other person a ‘friend,’ professionals may fail to recognise when power imbalances are at play. They may even legitimise the ‘friendship’ in the child’s mind.

Signs of grooming can be missed

Whether offline, online or a mixture of the two, forming a ‘friendship’ with a child is a common grooming technique used by those seeking to abuse or exploit children. Groomers often aim to befriend and gain the trust of children by:

  • pretending to be someone they’re not, for example by saying they are the same age as the child online
  • offering advice or understanding
  • buying gifts, including virtual gifts which can be harder to spot
  • giving the child attention.3

Case reviews have highlighted how children may feel more confident talking to other children and adults online than they would offline and be less aware of the potential risks.

Reviews and research also suggest that some groups of children may be particularly likely to seek comfort and affection through online relationships, such as those who have mental health issues or who have previously experienced trauma.4

These factors can leave children vulnerable to online grooming practices aimed at making children believe that online groomers really are their friends.5

If professionals take a child’s word that the person they’ve met online is their ‘friend’ without questioning the nature and dynamic of the relationship, this may lead to the signs of grooming being missed.

Professional perception of the child and the situation can be affected

If a safeguarding professional records a person who the child has met online as a ‘friend,’ other professionals are more likely to assume that the child’s relationship with this person is healthy and be less professionally curious about the potential risks posed by the relationship.

If the relationship is perceived as a genuine friendship, this can potentially lead to a miscalculation or minimisation of the level of risk involved. For example, reports a child ‘has been exchanging sexual images with a friend’ are likely to be perceived as being a lower level of risk than reports a child ‘has been exchanging sexual images with someone they have met online.’

What can professionals do?

It’s important that professionals stay curious when children talk about ‘friends’ they have met online.

Case reviews have highlighted how professionals should record what was said in the child’s words, along with their own professional views, so that no detail is missed and records are child focused. So, when considering someone a child has met online, professionals should acknowledge that the child considers the person as a friend, but it’s important that they explore further to understand why the child is using that word and the dynamics of the relationship.

Professionals should question whether the word ‘friend’ is masking a potential imbalance of power, such as a difference in age or developmental stage. Professionals should consider the ways in which additional needs or disabilities, mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and prior experience of abuse and neglect, might make children more susceptible to believing that someone who is seeking to harm them online is their friend.

The language professionals use when recording assessments and communicating with other professionals should clearly reflect any safeguarding and risk concerns. Rather than saying "a friend the child has met online", professionals could say, "the child says they are friends with a person they met online". They should also note if there:

  • are questions and/or concerns about the person’s age
  • is an imbalance of power
  • are potential signs of exploitation or abuse.

This shift in language makes clear how the child perceives the online relationship while highlighting the dynamics of the relationship and identifying any potential risks and concerns.

In making clear the child’s perspective, professionals can better understand the child’s day-to-day lived experience and communicate this to other professionals, supporting a child-centred response.

By focusing on the dynamics of the relationship and the specific behaviour displayed by the person the child believes to be their friend, professionals are more able to identify grooming practices and highlight abuse as and when it occurs.

Professionals should also take the opportunity to talk to children about online safety, what makes a good friendship and what healthy relationships look like.

> See our guidance on healthy and unhealthy relationships

> See our guidance on preventing online harm and abuse


Ofcom (2023) Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes (PDF) [Accessed 19/01/2024].
Rigg, K. and Phippen, A. (2016) Grooming within organisations: how to keep children safe (PDF). London: Farrer & Co LLP.
Rigg, K. and Phippen, A. (2016) Grooming within organisations: how to keep children safe (PDF). London: Farrer & Co LLP.
Katz, A. and El Asam, A (2021) Refuge and risk: life online for vulnerable young people (PDF). London: Internet Matters.
Coffey, A. and Lloyd, T. (2014) Real voices: child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester (PDF). [Manchester]: Greater Manchester Police Force.

Key points to take away

  • Children sometimes refer to people they meet online as their ‘friends,’ even though they know little about these people or the potential or actual risk they pose.
  • Groomers often seek to befriend and gain the trust of children online as part of the grooming process.
  • When a child or young person describes someone who they met online as their ‘friend,’ dig a little deeper into the dynamic of the relationship.
  • When talking to other professionals about the relationship between the child and online person, use language that reflects the voice of the child and accurately describes any safeguarding concerns that may be present.