How to protect children from online sexual harm

The NWG Network and Marie Collins Foundation have teamed up to help parents understand online harm. Learn how to minimise the risks and what you can do to help your child if you discover they have been the victims of online sexual harm.

What’s on the page

What is online harm?

Simply put, it is any behaviour online that causes harm. This could be physical, emotional or sexual.

Online sexual harm includes:

  • Sexual abuse and exploitation
  • Grooming: Someone befriends a child and builds trust so they can sexually influence them
  • Sending or receiving sexual photos or messages
  • Sextortion: Someone threatens to publish sexual images or information about another unless they do what they say
  • Encouraging a child access adult pornography websites.

How is it different from exploitation offline?

We know that sexual abuse is harmful regardless of where it takes place. Despite the similarities between online and offline sexual abuse, there are some differences.

Online interaction can give the offender greater access to the child. Family members can be in the background, downstairs or in other rooms and not know that abuse is occurring. This may be due to some parents not realising what their child is doing online or because they are unaware of the consequences.

An element to online sexual abuse is that it is often recorded and shared. This adds to harm of the child because they may feel embarrassed or ashamed, blaming themselves for the abuse. The child may become anxious and worried the offender will share pictures or videos with others. Survivors of online sexual abuse are often fearful that images of them will ‘resurface’. This fear can stay with them into adulthood.

How do offenders target young people online?

Offenders are skilled and motivated to target children through the internet. They can be of any gender, age or sexual orientation and gain access to a child by manipulating or grooming them.

Grooming is when an offender starts interacting online with a child by taking an interest in them, forming friendships, and finding out about their interests, home, family and friendship groups. During this process, the offender will be testing out a child’s response.  This may start as subtle and then may move into more sexual or coercive conversations. However, it can also be more direct with the offender moving onto another child if they are not getting the response they want.

As in the offline world, offenders will want to be where children are. Not all offenders pretend to be someone else or younger. They may engage children via social media, gaming and other apps. Offenders will target boys and girls from across all age ranges regardless of the child’s backgrounds.

What can I do if I discover my child has been harmed?

Try to stay calm. Your child may feel incredibly vulnerable, and they need to know you are on their side. Try the CARES approach if you have concerns about the content your child is sharing, viewing or uploading:

C – Calm, non-judgemental listening. Fake it if you have to! Make it clear you do not blame them.
A – Ask open questions and assess – give time and avoid asking ‘why?’
R – Reassure and give information and support. Reassurance does not mean saying it will all be okay. Reflect back feelings and acknowledge how hard this must be. This is a moment in time and recovery is possible.
E – Enter their model of reality; see how it feels for them. There is likely to be conflict and doubt. Do not worry if they would rather talk to someone else.
S – Seek support and self-care. Do not blame yourself. Contact relevant professionals for advice.

Remember: how you react influences your child. Keeping calm will help them do the same.

How do I report online sexual harm?

  • Contact either the police, social care or your child’s designated safeguarding lead (DSL) at their school if you have concerns. Your child will be anxious about who else knows and what they will do, so include your child where appropriate
  • Save any messages or abusive images as evidence of the abuse
  • Do not communicate with the offender online.

A vast majority of professionals will have experience in dealing with these types of incidents and should be able to advise or escalate the concern to the relevant agencies depending on the level of harm.

It’s important to think about support for you, your child and your family. There is only one person who is to blame for the abuse and that is the offender. Do not blame yourself or your child.

What can I do afterwards?

  • Focus on family: families affected by this have talked about the need to refocus their family to avoid the online harm defining their child. Look for wider activities that you can do as a family.
  • Show your child you believe: the offender may have told your child that you would not believe them, so it’s important to comfort them and let them know that you are there for whatever they need.
  • Let them go online: your child may still want to go online and may feel punished if they cannot. Consider when and how this can happen and look into measures you can take to enhance their safety online
  • Explain the situation to family: you may have to explain what happened to siblings or other family members, so they understand what is happening. You may even want to seek a professional’s help for this because of the sensitivity of the issue.
  • Get support for yourself: use a trusted friend, close family or access online support or helplines from a specialist organisation or a professional.
  • If images or videos of your child have been uploaded online, report them to have them taken down. This can be done via Childline’s website or helpline.

Remember: the abuse does not define you, your child or your family. The offender, through their actions, is to blame. If you need to, seek support, advice and guidance to ensure you and your child receive the help you both need.

How can I prevent my child from being harmed?

It may be hard to know all the apps and sites that children and young people are accessing, but it is useful to consider how the child interacts with apps or online platforms. The content a child is seeing could be harmful, or it could be who they are communicating with, or the topics they’re discussing, that is harmful.

Talking openly about gaming sites, social media and apps offers opportunities to explore how to use the internet safely. Open conversations will help open the floor for concerns you or your child might have. Awareness of how your child engages with a particular app or game is also beneficial. Parental controls can reduce the possibility of your child accessing inappropriate material or apps/platforms you do not want them to see. Software development within parental controls has increased their effectiveness over the years, but they are only one part of the protective picture. Parents control guides and resources can be found on the Internet Matters App Guide or at NSPCC’s Net Aware.

Though it can feel like a parallel world to adults, children often see little distinction between online and offline friendships. Covid-19 has seen an increase in children going online to be with their friends. The key is to communicate often and take an interest in who your child is talking to online in the same way you would with new friends offline.

  • The Marie Collins Foundation
    Marie Collins Foundation is a charity whose vision is that all children who suffer abuse facilitated by the internet and mobile technologies, and associated offline abuse, to be able to recover and live safe and fulfilling lives, free from fear and positive about their future.
  • NWG Network
    NWG Network is a specialist national organisation with over 14,500 members set up to fight child exploitation by working collaboratively locally and nationally across all sectors. We have a skilled team to work with practitioners for the best outcome for children subjected to or at risk of child exploitation.

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