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A range of child abuse definitions and concepts are now being seen in an ICT environment. As technology develops, the internet and its range of content services can be accessed through various devices including PCs, mobile / smart phones, tablets, laptops and games consoles. As highlighted by Dr. Tanya Byron in her report 'Do we have Safer Children in a Digital Age', recent years have witnessed major developments in webcam-based chat, location-based services, the use of internet-enabled and Wi-Fi enabled portable media devices and the participation of children on social networking sites and online gaming.

The internet is a significant tool in the distribution of indecent images/pseudo images of children. Social networking sites and apps, internet chat rooms, discussion forums and bulletin boards can be used as a means of contacting children with a view to grooming them for exploitative and abusive relationships; this can include requests to make and transmit pornographic images of themselves or to perform sexual acts live in front of a web cam. Contacts made initially in a chat room can be carried on via email, instant messaging services, mobile phone or text and SMS messaging.

There is also growing cause for concern about the exposure of children to inappropriate material, including adult pornography, and other forms of obscene / extremist material, which is online. Adults who allow or encourage a child to view such material may warrant further enquiry. Children themselves may engage in online bullying and use mobile camera phones to capture violent assaults of other children, or abusive and consensual activity for circulation.

‘Internet Abuse’ covers five main areas of abuse to children:
  • Sharing and production of abusive images of children (although these are not confined to the internet);
  • A child being groomed online for the purpose of sexual abuse;
  • Exposure to pornographic images or other offensive material via the internet;
  • The use of the internet, and in particular social media sites, to engage children in extremist ideologies or to promote gang related violence; and
  • Online bullying.

Social networking sites are often used by perpetrators as an easy way to access children and young people for sexual or criminal exploitation and abuse. In addition radical and extremist groups may use social networking to attract children and young people into rigid and narrow ideologies that are intolerant of diversity: this is similar to the grooming process and exploits the same vulnerabilities. 

For more information please see Child Safety Online: A Practical Guide for Parents and Carers whose Children are Using Social Media and Staying Safe Online – Guide for Children and Young People (Hull Safeguarding Children's Partnership).

Internet abuse may also include online bullying (see Bullying Safeguarding Practice Guidance). This is when a child is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child using the internet and / or mobile devices. In the case of online bullying it is possible for one victim to be bullied by many perpetrators.

Sexting is a term which many young people do not recognise or use, therefore it is important that when discussing the risks of this type of behaviour with children and young people the behaviour is accurately explained.

Sexting (some children and young people consider this to mean ‘writing and sharing explicit messages with people they know’ rather than sharing youth-produced sexual images) or sharing nudes and semi-nudes is a term are terms used when a person under the age of 18 shares sexual, naked or semi-naked images or videos of themselves or others, or sends sexually explicit messages. They can be sent using mobiles, tablets, smartphones, laptops - any device that allows you to share media and messages images and messages to be shared.

Sexting may not be criminally motivated and can be consensual, but creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child. A young person is breaking the law if they:

  • Take an explicit photo or video of themselves or a friend;
  • Share an explicit image or video of a child, even if it’s shared between children of the same age;
  • Possess, download or store an explicit image or video of a child, even if the child gave their permission for it to be created.

However, if a young person is found creating or sharing images, the police can choose to record that a crime has been committed but that taking formal action is not in the public interest (please see College of Policing: Briefing note - Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery (‘Sexting’)).

With effect from 29 June 2021, section 69 Domestic Abuse Act 2021 expanded so-called ‘revenge porn’ to include threats to disclose private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress.

The chapters relating to Organised and Complex Abuse and Allegations of Harm Made Against People who Work with Children should be borne in mind depending on the circumstances of the concerns.


There is evidence from research that people found in possession of indecent images /pseudo images or films/videos of children may currently or in the future become involved directly in child abuse themselves.

In particular, an individual’s access to children should be established during the assessment and investigation to consider the possibility that they may be actively involved in the abuse of children including those within the family, within employment contexts or in other settings such as voluntary work or other positions of trust.

Any indecent, obscene image involving a child has, by its very nature, involved a person, who in creating that image has been party to abusing that child. Consuming, storing and distributing indecent and abusive images of children is illegal and seen to re-victimise the child.

Grooming and Online Abuse

Section 15 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (as amended by the Serious Crime Act) makes it an offence for a person aged 18 or over to meet intentionally, or to travel with the intention of meeting, a child aged under 16 in any part of the world, if he has met or communicated with the child on at least one earlier occasion, and intends to commit a “relevant offence” against that child either at the time of the meeting or on a subsequent occasion. This section is intended to cover situations where an adult establishes contact with a child through, e.g. meetings, telephone conversations or communications on the internet”.

“Relevant Offence” refers to any offence defined under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, involving sexual activity/assault and/or criminal conduct.

Often, adults who want to engage children in sexual acts, or communicate with them for sexual gratification will seek out vulnerable children who desire friendship. Social networking sites are often used by perpetrators as an easy way to access children.

They will often use a number of grooming techniques including building a relationship and trust with the child through lying, creating different online personas and then attempting to engage the child in more intimate forms of communication including exploiting a child through the use of images and webcams. Child sex abusers will often use coercion/and or blackmail as methods of securing the silence of a child with the intention of arranging a physical meeting with the child.

The Serious Crime Act (2015)  introduced an offence of sexual communication with a child. This applies to an adult who communicates with a child and the communication is sexual or if it is intended to elicit from the child a communication which is sexual and the adult reasonably believes the child to be under16 years of age.


Often issues involving child abuse come to light through an accidental discovery of images on a computer or other device and can seem to emerge ‘out of the blue’ from an otherwise trusted and non-suspicious adult in the personal or professional realm. This in itself can make accepting the fact of the abuse difficult for those who know and may have trusted that individual. Partners, colleagues and friends often find it very difficult to believe and may require support.

The initial indicators of abuse for children are likely to be changes in behaviour and mood. Clearly such changes can also be attributed to many innocent events in a child’s life and cannot be regarded as diagnostic. However changes to a child’s circle of friends or a noticeable change in attitude towards the use of computer or phone could have their origin in abusive behaviour. Similarly a change in their friends or not wanting to be alone with a particular person may be a sign that something is upsetting them.

Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if you notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.

There are a number of circumstances where an online safety incident may come to light this includes:

  • Disclosure from a child e.g. online-bullying, inappropriate and/or sexual approaches on line, sending or receiving of indecent images;
  • You notice worrying changes in a child’s behaviour or moods particularly in relation to their online activity;
  • Concerns about online activities brought to your attention by an adult or child regarding something they have seen or heard;
  • Contact with a person known to pose a risk to children;
  • Illegal and/or inappropriate material found on computers, mobile devices or games consoles;
  • Disclosure from a practitioner or other adult; and / or
  • Organisational filtering systems.

The circumstances above are not a definitive list and practitioners should be aware of any other unusual factors that may suggest a child might have been exploited or abused.

Protection and Action to be Taken

Accessing or Creating Indecent Images

Where there is suspected or actual evidence of anyone accessing or creating indecent images of children, this must be shared with the Police and Children’s Social Care in line with the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure.

Online Grooming

Where there are concerns about a child being groomed, exposed to pornographic material or contacted by someone inappropriately, via the nternet or other ICT tools like a mobile phone, referrals should be made to the Police and to Children’s Social Care in line with the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure.

All such reports should be taken seriously. Most referrals will warrant a Strategy Discussion/Meeting to determine the course of further investigation, enquiry and assessment. Any intervention should be continually under review, especially if further evidence comes to light.

Due to the nature of this type of abuse and the possibility of the destruction of evidence, the referrer should discuss their concerns with the Police and Children’s Social Care before raising the matter with the family. This will enable a joint decision to be made about informing the family and ensuring that the child’s welfare is safeguarded.

Extremist Material

Where there are concerns in relation to a child’s exposure to extremist materials, the child’s school may be able to provide advice and support: all schools are required to identify a Prevent Single Point of Contact (SPOC) who is the lead for safeguarding in relation to protecting individuals from radicalisation and involvement in terrorism.

Suspected online terrorist material can be reported through the GOV.UK website, Report Online Terrorist Material. Reports can be made anonymously, although practitioners should not do so as they must follow the procedures for practitioners. Content of concern can also be reported directly to social media platforms – see UK Safer Internet website.

Additional Considerations

When communicating via the internet, children tend to become less wary and talk about things far more openly than they might when communicating face to face. Both male and female adults and some children may use the internet to harm children. Some do this by looking at, taking and/or distributing photographs and video images on the internet of children naked, in sexual poses and/or being sexually abused. It is also to be considered that children may be involved in the production of ‘self-generated indecent images’ (sexting).

Children should be supported to understand that when they use digital technology they should not give out personal information, particularly their name, address or school, mobile phone numbers to anyone they do not know or trust. This particularly includes social networking and online gaming sites. If they have been asked for such information, they should always check with their parent / carer or other trusted adult before providing such details. It is also important that they understand why they must take a parent / carer or trusted adult with them if they meet someone face to face whom they have only previously met on-line. It is also important to ensure children have an understanding of their ‘digital-footprint’ and the potential impact this has both now and in the future.

Children and young people should be warned about the risks of taking sexually explicit pictures of themselves and sharing them on the internet or by text. It is essential that young people are helped to understand the legal implications and the risks they are taking. However, once an image has been sent, it can then be shared with others or posted online. The initial risk posed by sharing indecent images comes from peers, friends and others in their social network who may in turn share the images. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act (2015) introduced the offence of Revenge Porn where intimate images are shared with the intent to cause distress to the specific victim.

Where young people are voluntarily sending/sharing sexual images or content with one another the Police are likely to use the ‘Outcome 21’ recording code. This allows the Police to record a crime as having happened but for no formal criminal justice action to be taken. Crimes recorded this way are unlikely to appear on future records or checks, unless the young person has been involved in other similar activities which may indicate they are at risk.

The discretion about whether to disclose non-conviction information rests with each Chief Constable managing the process.

See Briefing note: Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery (‘Sexting’) (College of Policing, 2016)

This would not be appropriate in cases where adults groom young people into sending explicit images which are then used to blackmail and ensnare them – see Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) Safeguarding Practice Guidance.

Inappropriate Activity and Materials

Dependent on the inappropriate activity or materials it may be necessary to consider one of the following actions:


  • Inform the E-safety / Online Safety Officer (in the school or care setting);
  • Follow Safeguarding and Child Protection Procedures (see Core Procedures);
  • Sanctions (within the individual organisation / care setting);
  • PHSE/Citizenship (within schools);
  • Anti bullying procedures (see also Bullying Safeguarding Practice Guidance);
  • Work with parents / carers;
  • Support e.g. counselling or peer mentoring.


For additional guidance, including how to develop Acceptable Use Policies please refer to the Hull Safeguarding Children's Partnership E-Safety Toolkit.

Further Information

See Safety in a Digital World: Guidance and Acceptable Use Policies Template

See UK Safer Internet website and CEOP, thinkUknow website

Childnet Advice on Sexting

NSPCC Report Remove Tool - The tool enables young people under the age of 18 to report a nude image or video of themselves which has appeared online. The Internet Watch Foundation will review these reports and work to remove any content which breaks the law.

UK Council for Internet Safety (UKCIS) Digital Passport – a communication tool to support children and young people with care experience to talk with their carers about their online lives

Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: advice for education settings working with children and young people

Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment between Children in Schools and Colleges (September 2021)

Ofsted Review of Sexual Abuse in Schools and Colleges (including Online) - This report is useful reading for everyone working in schools or with children and young people.

Coram Children's legal centre - LawStuff is run by Coram Children's Legal Centre and gives free legal information to young people on a range of different issues. See Children's rights in the digital world in particular.

Talking to your child about online sexual harassment: A guide for parents

Child Safety Online: A Practical Guide for Parents and Carers whose Children are Using Social Media

Staying Safe Online – Guide for Children and Young People (Hull Safeguarding Children's Partnership)

Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence (Catch 22)

Behaviour that is illegal if committed offline is also illegal if committed online. It is recommended that legal advice is sought in the event of an online issue or situation. There are a number of pieces of legislation that may apply including:

Communications Act 2003

Sending by means of the internet a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or sending a false message by means of or persistently making use of the Internet for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety is guilty of an offence liable, on conviction, to imprisonment. This wording is important because an offence is complete as soon as the message has been sent: there is no need to prove any intent or purpose.

Protection of Children Act 1978

It is an offence to take, permit to be taken, make, possess, show, distribute or advertise indecent images of children in the United Kingdom. A child for these purposes is anyone under the age of 18. Viewing an indecent image of a child on your computer means that you have made a digital image. An image of a child also covers pseudo-photographs (digitally collated or otherwise). A person convicted of such an offence may face up to 10 years in prison.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

The offence of grooming is committed if you are over 18 and have communicated with a child under 16 on one occasion (including by phone or using the internet) it is an offence to meet them or travel to meet them anywhere in the world with the intention of committing a sexual offence. Causing a child under 16 to watch a sexual act is illegal, including looking at images such as videos, photos or webcams, for your own gratification. It is also an offence for a person in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with any person under 18, with whom they are in a position of trust. (Typically, teachers, social workers, health practitioners, youth workrers staff fall in this category of trust.) Any sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 13 commits the offence of rape.

Serious Crime Act 2015

The Act introduces a new offence of sexual communication with a child. This would criminalise an adult who communicates with a child for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, where the communication is sexual or if it is intended to elicit from the child a communication which is sexual and the adult reasonably believes the child to be under 16.

Amendments to this Chapter

In July 2022, a link to the Children’s Commissioners guide Talking to your child about online sexual harassment: A guide for parents was added into Further Information.