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Online risks to children: evidence review

Reviewing the evidence base on online harms to children

Publication date November 2023

This review looks at evidence that has been published since 2017 on the online risks and harms experienced by children in the UK. It spans the period (2017-2023) immediately before the implementation of the Online Safety Act 2023, providing an up-to-date picture of the evidence base and setting a baseline from which to assess any changes linked to the introduction of regulation in the online world.

The review focuses primarily on evidence concerning children’s exposure to online sexual risks, in line with the NSPCC’s priority work around child sexual abuse. It also reviews evidence on two other topics: children’s exposure to other online risks, including pornography, self-harm and violent content; and the role technology plays in increasing or decreasing these risks. The scope of the review includes UK and international studies involving children of all ages.

The review:

  • sets out the different types of risks and harms children face online, focusing on sexual risks
  • examines how the design of online platforms and tools can play a part in increasing or decreasing those risks
  • gives research recommendations and recommendations by NSPCC to tech companies and Ofcom.

Authors: Dr Jo Bryce, Professor Sonia Livingstone, Professor Julia Davidson, Beth Hall and Jodie Smith

Online risks to children: evidence review
Download the review (PDF)
Online risks to children: executive summary
Download the executive summary (PDF)
Online risks to children: appendices
Download the appendices (PDF)

Key findings

Children are encountering sexual risks online

Evidence published since 2017 indicates that at least one in twenty children have experienced online sexual risks or harm. The vast amount of child sexual abuse imagery in circulation suggests that many children who experience sexual exploitation go unidentified.

Children are more likely to be exposed to content risks than most types of sexual risk

There are some commonalities between the emotional and psychological impacts of these two types of harm. However, children who encounter sexual risks are less likely to tell someone about their experience.

Risk is not an inevitable outcome of being online

Risk can be increased or decreased through the design of online platforms and the decisions tech companies make regarding the use of robust safety features such as age assurance, content moderation and detection tools.

"The review captures the various risks faced by children in a largely unregulated online environment, before providers of user-to-user online services were legally required to take responsibility for their users’ safety."

Online risks to children: evidence review report


Please cite as: Bryce, J. et al (2023) Evidence review on online risks to children. London: NSPCC.