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:
- bullying or cyberbullying
- emotional abuse (including emotional blackmail)
- harassment, stalking or other threatening behaviour
- pressure or coercion to send sexual images
- sexual abuse
- sexual exploitation.
Children and young people may also be exposed to online harms, such as inappropriate behaviours or content online.
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.
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.