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Responding to online abuse

Last updated: 11 Jan 2024

Any child or young person can experience online abuse. If you’ve noticed something worrying, are concerned about something that's happened, or a child or young person has spoken out about abuse, then it’s important you respond appropriately.

The guidance on this page will help you recognise and respond to online abuse, helping keep the children and young people you work or volunteer with safe. 

What is online abuse?

Online abuse is any type of abuse that happens on the internet, using technology like computers, tablets, mobile phones, games consoles and other internet-enabled devices.

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

Children and young people may also be exposed to online harms, such as inappropriate behaviours or content online. 

> Find out more about online harms

How online abuse happens

Online abuse can happen anywhere that allows digital communication, such as:

  • social media
  • text messages and messaging apps
  • email and private messaging
  • online chats
  • comments on video or livestreaming sites
  • chat in games, including voice chat
  • immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality 

Perpetrators exploit digital technology to initiate, maintain and escalate abuse. They may also groom children and young people online, using online platforms to build a trusting relationship with the intention of abusing a child or young person. 

Perpetrators will often try to engage with young people across a variety of online platforms. They may also encourage children to move conversations to platforms that use end-to-end encryption (NSPCC, 2021). This means only the sender and recipient can see the content of messages which makes it harder to identify threats to child safety. 

> Find out more about grooming

Online abuse may:

  • be part of abuse that's also happening face-to-face such as bullying or an abusive relationship
  • happen only online
  • start online then develop into contact abuse. 

Children and young people can be at risk of online abuse from people they know offline, or from people they have only known online. Children may have a false sense of safety online, which means they're more likely to talk to strangers. Perpetrators may also create anonymous profiles or pretend to be another child. This means children and young people may not realise who they're speaking to (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al 2017). 

Children and young people can also experience further abuse, or be revictimised, if abusive content is recorded, uploaded or shared by others online – whether the original abuse happened online or offline. 

Our research has shown that the impact of 'online' and 'offline' abuse is the same, no matter how the abuse took place. (Hamilton-Giachritsis et al, 2017). However it happens, it can feel relentless and like there’s no escape.

Keeping children safe online

Make sure your staff and volunteers understand how to keep children safe online and know how to respond appropriately to concerns. This elearning course covers topics including new and emerging online harms, sex and relationships online, keeping children safe from sexual abuse online and online bullying.

> Find out more about online safety elearning course



Recognising the signs of online abuse

It’s not always easy to recognise the signs that a child or young person is experiencing online abuse. You might see a change in a child's or young person's behaviour, or you might notice that a child has become much more isolated. Being alert to changes in behaviour is key to helping spot when something might be wrong. 

Signs and indicators

Many of the signs that a child is being abused are the same regardless of the type of abuse they are experiencing. 

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse

> See our briefing on the definitions and signs of child abuse

You should look out for any behaviour or emotional changes that a child may display. For example they may become angry or irritable, or they might seem low or anxious. You may notice changes in their eating or sleeping habits.(DCMS and Home Office, 2020) (Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2017)

Be aware of any changes in what children say, for example if they start using inappropriate language for their age.

A child or young person who is experiencing online abuse may also (Stop it Now, n.d.):

  • become more secretive about their devices or who they are talking to: It's normal for children and young people to want more privacy as they get older. But if this is accompanied by unusual or strong emotional reactions, there may be something wrong. For example, young people may hide their screen when someone approaches or share less information than normal about what they do online. They might behave agitated, anxious or fearful if someone picks up or wants to use their phone or other device.
  • appear isolated or withdrawn from their usual friendships and activities, or have new friends: You may notice that a child or young person is spending less time with their existing friends. Or they may be spending a lot of time with a new friend, but offer very little information about who they are or what they are doing. They might go out for long periods, start missing school or cancelling other activities that they used to enjoy. 
  • spend more (or suddenly less) time online: Children and young people may start spending increasing time online, perhaps staying up late, when they hadn’t done previously. They might spend more time talking with new online friends. Or they might stop using their phone or other devices with no explanation. 

Signs vary and will depend on the individual child or young person, and the type of harm they are experiencing. Read more about:

Vulnerability factors

Although any child or young person can experience online abuse or harm, research suggests there are some factors that can make children and young people more vulnerable to abuse.

These factors include things like:

  • age
  • gender
  • being LGBTQ+
  • loneliness or social isolation
  • living in care
  • special educational needs or disability
  • mental health problems
  • previous experiences of abuse.

(Ansary, 2020; Katz and El Asam, 2020; May-Chahal et al, 2018; Nominet, 2022; Stoilova et al, 2021; Turner et al, 2023; Wachs et al, 2021; Zhao et al, 2022).

If a child or young person has multiple vulnerabilities, this can increase their likelihood of encountering online risk. (Katz and El Asam, 2020)

Risks assessing online platforms

Each online platform has its own set of benefits, and risks. The Online Safety Act 2023 places legal duties and responsibilities on online service providers to keep children and young people safe online. You should also ensure you properly risk assess any online platforms you use with children and young people. When carrying out a risk assessment, make sure you bear in mind the specific needs and vulnerabilities of the children you work with.

> Find out more about preventing online harm and abuse, including relevant legislation

> Learn about risk assessing online platforms

> Read more about the Online Safety Act 2023

Barriers to disclosing online abuse

As with all forms of abuse, a child or young person may find it difficult or be reluctant to speak out about the abuse they've experienced online. They may: 

  • not understand that they are being abused
  • feel dirty or ashamed
  • be too embarrassed to share the 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 in 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). Or they may be worried that they will be banned from going online if they speak out. (Allen and McIntosh, 2023).

If a child has experienced sexual abuse online, their abuser may also have threated to share sexual images of them if they tell anyone about the abuse. This means they might be frightened to speak out.




If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.

If you're worried about a child, but they aren’t in immediate danger, you should share your concerns. 

  • Follow your organisation's 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 Our child protection specialists 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.
  • If your concern is about online sexual abuse, you can make a report to Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP).

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

If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedures or you're not comfortable with how your organisation has responded to your report, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

> Find out about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

Reporting online child abuse images

It's against the law to produce or share images of child abuse, even if the image was self-created. This includes sharing images and videos over social media.

If you see a child abuse image or video online, including self-generated nude or semi-nude images, you should follow your organisation's policy and procedures and make your nominated child protection lead aware of the situation as soon as possible. Don't comment, like or share the video or image, as this will distribute it further. Some images and videos may appear old but it's still important to report them, you may be able to help prevent the video being shared further.

Your nominated child protection lead should then make a decision about what actions need to be taken, this may include:

  • reporting the image to the website or app you've seen it on
  • making a child protection referral to your local child protection services
  • reporting concerns to the police
  • contacting the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 500
  • reporting images involving sexual abuse to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) who will take steps to get it removed from the internet.

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

When you're not sure

The NSPCC Helpline can help when you're not sure if a situation needs a safeguarding response. Our child protection specialists are here to support you whether you're seeking advice, sharing concerns about a child, or looking for reassurance.

Whatever the need, reason or feeling, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 500 or by emailing

Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you. Depending on what you share, our experts will talk you through which local service can help, advise you on next steps, or make referrals to children's services and the police.

> Find out more about how the NSPCC Helpline can support you

Supporting young people to take down nudes shared online

Young people under 18 who are worried that a sexual image or video of them may have been shared online can use Childline and IWF's Report Remove tool to see if it can be taken down.

> Find out more about how you can support young people to use Report Remove

> See Childline's advice for young people on reporting nudes online

Managing allegations

Organisations that work with children and young people should have procedures about how to respond to allegations of abuse made against a child, young person or an adult employee or volunteer – or concerns that they may pose a risk to others.

All allegations and concerns must be taken seriously and dealt with sensitively and promptly. Find out more about:

> Managing allegations made against a child

> Managing allegations made against an adult

Children displaying harmful behaviour

Children and young people may also display harmful or problematic behaviour online, including bullying others or engaging in sexual activity online that may be harmful to themselves or others.

It's important in these cases to take appropriate action to safeguard all the children affected, including those who displayed the behaviour as well as those who it was directed towards. 

Find out more about responding to:

> Harmful sexual behaviour

> Bullying and cyberbullying

> Sexting

Informing parents or carers

Unless it would put the child at risk of further harm, you should inform their parents or carers about incidents of online abuse.

> See resources for parents and carers on NSPCC website

Supporting staff and volunteers

Whether a child or young person discloses abuse or a member of staff or volunteer discovers that online abuse is happening, your response should take account of the needs of everyone involved – including staff and volunteers. Support and training should be covered in your online safety policy and procedures. 

> Find out more about online safety policies and procedures

> View our online safety training courses 


Supporting children and families

Supporting children and young people who have experienced online abuse

If you discover a child or young person has experienced online abuse or harm, or they tell you they have, you should:

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

When responding to incidents or disclosures, always follow your organisation's safeguarding and child protection procedures.

Any safeguarding response will need to be based on an understanding of the context of the abuse so the child or young person gets the support they need. For example, the abuse may have started online but now involve in person contact abuse. Or an abusive incident may have been filmed and shared online.


Never promise a child that you will keep things they’re telling you a secret. Explain that you need to share what they’ve told you with someone who will be able to help.

Information sharing is key to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. It helps professionals build a clearer picture of the child's life, gain a better understanding of any risks they are facing, and helps ensure the child gets the right help at the right time.

All children and young people can contact Childline if they would like confidential advice and support. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or get information and advice on the Childline website.

Ongoing support

You should make sure that children and young people who have experienced online abuse have access to ongoing support. How much support they need and for how long will depend on the child and particular situation.

You may want to have ongoing conversations with the child or young person about what support they'd like. Or you may wish to make a referral for therapeutic support or need to work with other agencies such as social care to provide multi-agency support.

You should also consider the needs of other children and young people. For example, if there is an incident of online abuse within a school, you should consider what action needs to be taken to safeguard all pupils and not just those directly involved. 

> Find out more about preventing online abuse

Supporting parents and carers

Parents and carers may need help to understand their child's online experiences and how they can support them. 

You should explain what steps you are taking to keep children safe, and what they can do to help. Give parents opportunities to ask questions, and think about how you can best support them to help their child. 

> See our resources for parents and carers on the NSPCC website

Our services for children 

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

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

Letting the Future In (LTFI)

Letting the Future In (LTFI) is an evidence-based programme that helps children who have been sexually abused get back on track – including online sexual abuse. The programme has also been adapted for children aged 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 patters
  • 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




Allen, C. and McIntosh, V. (2023) Child safeguarding and immersive technologies: an outline of the risks. London: NSPCC. 

Ansary, Nadia S. (2020) Cyberbullying: concepts, theories, and correlates informing evidence-based best practices for prevention. Aggression and Violent Behavior, Vol.50. pp 1-9 [101343].

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

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.

Katz, Adrienne, El Asam, Aiman, Internet matters, Youthworks and Kingston University (2020) In their own words: the digital lives of school children. London: Internet Matters.

May-Chahal, Corinne, Palmer, Emma, Dodds, Steve and Milan, Steve (2018) Rapid evidence assessment: characteristics and vulnerabilities of online-facilitated child sexual abuse and exploitation. Lancaster: Lancaster University. pp 113.

Nominet (2022) Digital youth index 2022. Oxford: Nominet.

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

NSPCC (2021) End-to-end encryption: understanding the impacts for child safety online (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.

Stoilova, Mariya, Edwards, Christopher, Kostyrka-Allchorne, Kasia, Livingstone, Sonia and Sonuga-Barke, Edmund (2021) The impact of digital experiences on adolescents with mental health vulnerabilities: a multimethod pilot study. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.

Stop It Now! (n.d.) Warning signs a young person may be the target of sexual abuse online [Accessed 16/11/2023].

Turner, Heather A., Finkelhor, David and Colburn, Deirdre (2023) Predictors of online child sexual abuse in a U.S. national sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol.38, Iss.11-12. pp 7780-7803.

Wachs, S. et al (2021) “DNT LET ’EM H8 U!”: applying the routine activity framework to understand cyberhate victimization among adolescents across eight countries. Computers & Education, vol. 160. 

Zhao, Jinzhe, Bao, Ling, Wang, Pujue and Geng, Jingyu (2022) The relationship between shyness and cyberbullying victimization: a moderated mediation model. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol.141.