How to protect children from online sexual harm

A pre-teen browses a laptop in silhouette, with worried body language.

Learn about online sexual harm with advice from the NWG Network and Marie Collins Foundation.

Find advice on how to minimise the risks and support your child if they are victims of online sexual harm.

What is online harm?

Simply put, online harm is any behaviour online that causes physical, emotional or sexual harm.

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 interactions can give the offender greater access to the child. Abuse can occur even while family members are in the background, downstairs or in another room.

Content is recorded and shared

Often, an element to online sexual abuse is it is recorded and shared. This adds to harm of the child because it can spread further. As such, children might feel embarrassed or ashamed, blaming themselves for the abuse. They might become anxious, worrying the offender will share the 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.

What is grooming?

Grooming is when an offender interacts online with a child by taking an interest in them. The groomer will form a friendship with them and learn about their interests, home, family and friendship groups.

During this process, the offender tests out a child’s response.  It could start subtly and then move into more sexual or coercive conversations. However, the offender could also try to coerce the child more directly. If they’re unsuccessful, they might move onto another child.

Where do groomers contact children?

As in the offline world, offenders go where children are. Some groomers pretend to be someone else or younger. However, not all offenders do this.

Groomers might contact children via social media, gaming and other popular apps. Offenders target both boys and girls from across all age ranges regardless of the children’s backgrounds.

What can I do if my child is harmed?

Try to stay calm. Your child will likely feel 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 feel 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.

Most professionals who work with children have experience and training dealing with these types of incidents. As such, they can help advise or escalate the concern to the relevant agencies depending on the level of online harm.

It’s important to think about support for you, your child and your family. There is only one person 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 you can do as a family.
  • Show your child you believe them: offenders often tell their victims that no one will believe them, so it’s important to validate their worries. Comfort them and let them know you are there for whatever they need.
  • Let them go online: your child might still want to go online. If you limit this access, they might view it as a punishment. Consider when and how online harm 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 specialist organisations or a professional.
  • If images or videos of your child were uploaded online, report them to have them taken down. You can do this 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 protect my child from online harm?

It is sometimes hard to know all the apps and sites that children and young people access, but it is useful to consider how the child interacts with apps or online platforms. The content a child sees, the people they talk to or the topics they discuss could all contribute to online harm.

Have open conversations

Talk openly about video game platforms, social media apps and other interests. Doing this offers opportunities to help your child understand how to use the internet safely. It’s also provides you awareness of how your child engages with their digital space.

Regular open conversations open the floor for concerns you or your child might have.

Use parental controls

Parental controls act as a safety net to support the conversations you have with your child. With them, you can reduce the possibility of your child accessing inappropriate content or apps and platforms you do not want them to see.

You can set these controls through installed software as well as through specific platforms and broadband or mobile networks. To support you, find step-by-step parental controls guides here.

Remember that parental controls are only part of the online safety picture. Regular check-ins and conversations further support your child’s digital life.

Talk about what makes a friend

Children often see little distinction between online and offline friendships. Furthermore, the Covid-19 lockdowns saw an increase in children using the online space to stay in touch with friends. So, the people they talk to online might form part of their friendship group in their mind.

Discuss with them what makes a friend and how the online space isn’t quite the same as the offline space.

Help children learn what healthy online behaviours look like with the Once Upon Online story, A ‘Friend’ Appears, from Digital Matters.

Personalised advice

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Stay on top of your child’s interests, favourite apps and worries with your family toolkit sent straight to your inbox.

  • 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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