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Preventing online harm and abuse

Last updated: 11 Jan 2024

Technology is an integral part of children’s and young people’s lives. It has transformed the way they learn, play, connect and communicate. 

But these opportunities don’t come without risk. Children and young people may experience abuse online and they may be exposed to harmful content. And this can have a long-lasting impact on their wellbeing.

Every child deserves to be, and to feel, safe online. And we can all play a role in helping make online spaces safer for children and young people by:

  • talking to children and young people about anything worrying they experience online
  • recognising how important the online world is to children and young people, and talk to them about it
  • making sure online safety is an ongoing part of your work with children and young people, not just a one-off session
  • setting rules for the use of online platforms in your organisation. Involve children and young people in setting these and make sure they’re well understood
  • using technical solutions to manage access to online platforms and make sure everyone knows about and understands why you’ve put them in place
  • helping children and young people understand and manage their privacy settings online.


Get training

Our training courses can help you gain the skills and confidence that you need to prevent online abuse and harm and protect children.

> Online safety training

> Sharing nude images training


Assessing the risk

Auditing use 

Start by considering how your organisation and the children you work with currently use technology and access the internet. This should include the types of devices and which apps, sites and games are used.

Also think about how aware children, young people, staff and volunteers are about online safety and whether there are any training and education needs.

Talk to children and young people directly about what they do online, and any risks they may be exposed to. You should consider the most appropriate time and place for these conversations. For example you may want to address the issues with the whole class, or a one-to-one or small group conversation may be more appropriate. Make sure children and young people know that they can speak about any risks they may have encountered and any worries or concerns they may have. 

Assessing risk

Whether you’re setting up an online community, running virtual activities or sharing news with young people and their parents, it’s important to carry out a full risk assessment. This should be done before using any new online platform with children and young people, or changing the way you use an existing tool. It should include:

  • making sure it's age appropriate
  • identifying potential risks
  • thinking about any contextual safeguarding issues
  • ensuring adequate safety and privacy settings are available
  • reviewing relevant policies and procedures.

> Find out more about risk assessing online platforms

> Find out more about contextual safeguarding

> Find out more about online communities

The 4Cs of online safety

Children Online: Research and Evidence (CO:RE) has developed a framework of risks called the 4Cs (Livingstone and Stoilova, 2021). This outlines the risks a child may experience when they are online: content, contact, conduct and contract or commerce.

> Read more about the 4Cs of online safety


Policies and procedures

Online safety policy and procedures

All organisations that work with children should have a child protection policy and procedures that set out what action staff and volunteers should take if they have concerns about a child's safety. 

In addition, every organisation that works with children needs to have an online safety policy statement, which sets out your commitment to keeping children and young people (as well as staff and volunteers) safe online. This should also set out your expectations about how children, young people, staff and volunteers should use the internet safely within your organisation. This should align with your other key safeguarding and organisational policies, procedures and standards.

Everyone who works or volunteers for the organisation should read and understand these documents. The policy and procedures should be reviewed regularly. 

> See an example online safety policy statement

Photographing and filming children

You might film or take photographs of children and young people during events and activities, have CCTV on site, or use livestreaming. Whatever the source, you should make sure you have appropriate processes and policies in place to manage risk, gain consent and keep children and young people safe.

> Find out more about taking, sharing, using and storing images of children

Online behaviour

Everyone who works or volunteers for your organisation should follow a code of conduct. This includes:

  • not using personal accounts or devices to engage with children and young people on social media or in online communities
  • keeping personal information private online
  • considering the long term implications of content posted online
  • not uploading or posting inappropriate, offensive or illegal content on any online space.

> See example behaviour code for adults

You should also promote healthy online behaviour amongst the children and young people you work with. You may want to consider using an online safety agreement.

> See example online safety agreement

Sharing your policies and procedures

You should share your safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures with staff, volunteers, parents and carers. This will ensure everyone understands what they need to do to help keep children safe online.

You could also create a version of your policies and procedures that are suitable for children and young people to help them understand the steps you will take to keep them safe. 

Support and training 

Organisations should provide support and training for all staff and volunteers on dealing with all forms of online harm and abuse, including bullying or cyberbullying, emotional abuse, sexting or sharing nudes, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.

> See all our online safety training courses

Infrastructure and technology

Consider how the technology your organisation uses is set up, and assess whether the right safety precautions are in place. Measures you can put in place include:

  • firewalls
  • filtering or monitoring systems
  • password protection.

It's important to get the balance right between protecting children from online harm and enabling them to successfully navigate the online world. Too many restrictions can stop children from learning how to assess and manage risks for themselves putting them at greater risk in the future.

Reviewing and updating

Your training, policies and procedures should be updated regularly to make sure they are up-to-date with national guidance and reflect the needs of the children and young people you work with.

You should keep clear records of any online safety incidents, and analyse these regularly. This will help you identify patterns and improve the measures you are taking to keep children safe.

> Use our self-assessment tool to audit your safeguarding and child protection measures


Awareness and education

Raising awareness 

Everyone working or volunteering with children and young people should be aware of the risks of online abuse and harm. They should also understand how to run online services safely and manage an online presence effectively. 

> Listen to our podcast enhancing online safety for children 

> Take our online safety training course

Working with your local community

Our local online safety campaigns help raise awareness of issues such as online bullying or sharing indecent images. We use innovative and creative ways to help you reach your audiences with these important messages.

> Get in touch to discuss how we can help you

Talking to children about online safety

You can help children and young people learn how to keep safe online by talking to them about: 

  • how to use the internet and technology in a safe and responsible way
  • how to behave appropriately online
  • what to do if they’re worried about something they experience, online.

> See our online safety resources

> Read our tips on how to have difficult conversations with children and young people

Online safety and schools

Messages about staying safe online should also be embedded in the school curriculum. For example in:

  • information technology (IT) or computing lessons
  • sex and relationships education
  • assemblies.

> Find out more about e-safety for schools

Speak out Stay safe

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

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

Teaching resources

We’ve created a range of resources to help you have discussions about online safety.

> See our online safety resources

Supporting families

Parents and carers

Parents and carers may need extra support in understanding how to keep their children safe online. Professionals should share information and advice about online safety, harm and abuse. They should also signpost parents and carers, where relevant, to safe and appropriate services that can provide additional support.

> See our resources for parents on the NSPCC website

Children and young people

Childline has produced age-appropriate advice for children and young people about online safety – including cyberbullying, sexting and sharing nude images and grooming. 

You might want to signpost children to Childline for support or use some of these examples to help start a conversation.

> See Childline’s information about online and mobile safety for children and young people

Children can also contact Childline for free on 0800 1111 if they need to talk to one of our counsellors confidentially.

> Download or order Childline posters and wallet cards


Legislation, policy and guidance

Key legislation for online abuse

Across the UK, criminal and civil legislation aims to prevent a range of abusive activities online including:

  • stalking
  • harassment
  • grooming
  • creating or sharing child sexual abuse material
  • sexual exploitation
  • 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, there is legislation which applies to online child sexual offences, 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
  • meeting, or arranging to meet, a child following sexual grooming
  • creating or sharing explicit images of a child
  • trafficking and/or enslaving children for sexual exploitation.

> Find out more about the legislation for child sexual abuse 

> Find out more about the legislation for child sexual exploitation 

> Find out more about the legislation for sexting

> Find more information about the legislation for child trafficking 

Child protection guidance

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.

Schools have specific guidance around keeping children safe online. 

> Read e-safety in schools guidance

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, 2020).

In addition, UKCIS has published a digital resilience framework designed to help organisations consider and support digital resilience for individuals and groups (UKCIS, 2020).

UKCIS also provides guidance about online safeguarding in early years settings for managers and practitioners (UKCIS, 2019).

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
  • cyberbullying
  • online grooming (Home Office, 2015).

Key policy

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, 2021).

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, 2021).

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).

Legal responsibilities and guidance 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 internet users from online harms in the UK and affords a higher standard of protection to children. The framework will require companies to: 

  • take action to prevent illegal online content and activity, including material 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, 2020).

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). The VSP regime will be repealed as part of the implementation of the Online Safety Act.

Keep up to date with new legislation, policy and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research.




Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) (2021b) Online media literacy strategy. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Home Office (2020) Online harms: interim codes of practice. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Department of Health (2021) Online safety strategy and action plan. Belfast: Department of Health.

Home Office (2015) Online abuse and bullying prevention guide for professionals working with young people (PDF). [London]: Home Office.

Home Office (2021) Voluntary principles to counter online child sexual exploitation and abuse. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Home Office (2021b) Tackling child sexual abuse strategy. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) (2021) Children's Code hub. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

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).

Ofcom (2021) Video-sharing platform (VSP) regulation. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Ofcom (2023) Update: how Ofcom is preparing to regulate online safety. [Accessed 23/10/2023].

Scottish Government (2017) National action plan on internet safety for children and young people. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2019) Safeguarding children and protecting professionals in early years settings: online safety considerations. London: UK Council for Internet Safety.

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) (2020a) Education for a connected world: a framework to equip children and young people for digital life. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

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