Exploring the impacts of online harms, Part 1

Mum with laptop smiles at her daughter in conversation as she browses her smartphone.

This blog series assesses online harms from our tracker survey, analyses who is most impacted and explores why.

In this first blog, we focus on the inconsistencies between parents’ and children’s reports of online harms.

How online harms affect children and young people

Internet Matters regularly surveys parents and children to better understand the prevalence and awareness of online harms experienced by children. In this series of blogs, we assess these online harms and analyse who is most impacted and why.

We are able do this through our latest tracker results, where we have started to capture the impact of online harms on children – looking at not just whether they have experienced an issue, but how much of an effect it had on them. From spending too much time online through to fake news and misinformation, we know that different harms have different levels of impact on children.

In this first blog, we will focus on what parents and children say that children have experienced. In Part 2 of this blog, we will explore the impact of those experiences.

Summary of findings

  • Bullying is the most top-of-mind concern or worry for parents and children about being online. However, only around a quarter of children say they have any concern or worry, the rest said that nothing worries them online.
  • Around 1 in 7 children experience online bullying and abuse from people they know or don’t know . Similar levels are reported by children and parents. This suggests that children are willing speak to their parents about it.
  • Parents and children often differ in their reporting of which online harms children have experienced. The highest disparity is in children’s experience of fake news (x2.5 times higher amongst children) and being contacted by strangers (x1.5 times higher).
  • Confidence in knowing how to stay safe online doesn’t necessarily mean that children are less likely to avoid online harms. But it can result in knowing which affirmative actions to take following a child experiencing harm online, whether that is engaging parents or adopting strategies to protect themselves on their digital devices.

What parents and children are most concerned about

When assessing online harms in our parent and child surveys, we begin by spontaneously asking what they think are the biggest risks or concerns facing children and young people online, without any prompts.

For children, bullying is the main concern about being online. Younger children (9-13) tend to focus on some of the basic emotional outcomes to bullying – namely people being ‘mean’ or ‘bad’ to them. Older children (14-16 year olds) also pulled out bullying as a core concern, but in addition recognised the complexities of some other online harms including ‘hacking’, ‘trolls’ and around ‘giving away personal information’.

Parents have more concerns and worries compared to children, with a wider variety of risks provided. Yet it was bullying that came out as the main concern for parents as well.

Word cloud that shows children's concerns about being online. The biggest words include Bully, Hack, Worry, Try and Bad

Figure 1: Children responses to what concerns them online (28% responded, 72% said ‘nothing worries me’)

Word cloud that shows parents' concerns about their child being online. The biggest words are Bully, Groom, Content, Cyber, Age, Adult and Scam

Figure 2: Parents responses to what concerns them about their child being online (77% responded, 23% said ‘don’t know’)


Only 28% of children identify a concern or risk when asked spontaneously. This low proportion of worry may be down to some children not being able to elaborate their concerns without prompting, or it may be a result of them being self-confident. Indeed, when asked about their level of confidence of knowing how to stay safe online, 73% of those who said they had no worries about being online were confident about being safe online – significantly higher when compared those who mentioned a worry a concern (66%).

Is it possible that a level of over-confidence leads children to experiencing more online harms? In the next section we will explore the reported experiences of online harms by parents and children. And we will explore why it is critical that parents have oversight and understanding of what they children are doing online so they can support children in correctly identifying risks they may come across.

Tracker survey - Nov 2022 document

See summary of our November 2022 insights tracker.

A mother and daughter sitting on the couch, the mum with a laptop and smiling, looking at her daughter while her daughter smiles at her smartphone in her hands. The Internet Matters logo is in the top left corner with the title reading 'Insights Tracker November 2022'.

See insights

Exploring children’s experiences of online harms

Our tracker survey provides children and parents with a list of online harms and asks which (if any), they or their children have experienced.

In the chart below, we see the list of online harms and how parents and children report children experiencing them. We’ve then highlighted the difference between those scores.

We will explore some of the hypotheses around why there has been a significant under-estimation of the negative experiences of children and young people online (indicated by the blue bars with minus scores) in the examples below. This under-appreciation of the risks that children report experiencing is concerning, as it means that children might not be receiving the support they need from parents in these areas.

Graph showing the difference between children's experiences of online harm and what parents think their children have experienced. Notable differences can be seen with Fake news / information and Strangers contacting me, where children report experiencing these harms 22% more than their parents report. Also, 32% of parents say their child has experience none of the listed harms while only 22% of children say the same.

Figure 3: List of online harms experienced by children and reported by parents, showing the difference of results between parents and children.


Looking at fake news or information, 37% of children reported experiencing this, whereas only 15% of parents say their children have experienced it. This considerable difference may be explained by a number of hypotheses: that it is a blind spot for parents underestimating the prevalence of fake news during their children’s online time, that it is being over-estimated by children believing the content they see is untrue as it is not what they believe or have previously heard, or it might seem insignificant to the children who have experienced the issue so it never gets discussed with their parents.

More than four times as many children aged 9-16 (29%) report strangers contacting them compared to parents’ reports (7%). A reason for the significant difference might be down to children normalising this experience and not talking about it with their parents, leading to parents underestimating the issue.
Another reason might be around online gaming habits. We know from our data that more than half of 9-16 year olds play online games against other people (54%). These games often have online chat and messaging functions, which parents may be less familiar with and children aren’t informing them when an interaction with someone they don’t know occurs.

There are only a few areas where parents over-report experiences compared to children. There are significant differences in the reporting of sharing inappropriate images (7% reported by parents, 4% children), strangers looking to steal money online (7%, 3%), and sexual abuse or harassment from other children (7%, 2%). These may be low occurring online harms, but some of the most serious. The reason for the over reporting may be explained by parents have greater concerns over these online harms, so over-report the actual occurrence of them. It may be that children don’t fully understand these risks or maybe under-appreciate what they entail. They need further investigation and monitoring to see how they progress and align with other habits children show online.

How confidence might impact children’s ability to stay safe online

We previously discussed the role of confidence in staying safe online and how it could possibly impact young people’s ability to be safe online.

In our analysis we compared children’s reporting of having experienced harm online with their confidence about staying safe online. Our results show that children who say they are confident online are more likely (83%) to say they have experienced harm online – compared to children who are less confident (78%).

So, although a large majority of children say they are confident in staying safe online, they are more likely to report an experience of online harm . This may be down to these children having a better understanding of online issues, so they can more accurately report when the occur. But it may also be due to an over-confidence in the steps needed to be taken to stay safe online.

The lowest group for those reporting online harms are those who are ‘unsure’ whether they know how to stay safe online. This may be because they are also unsure about which online harms they have experienced or the factors that may make up an online harm experience. An interesting group to investigate more into.

Table showing children's confidence levels for staying safe online. It shows that children who say they are confident online are more likely to have experienced harm online.

Figure 4: Reported experience of online harms by confidence levels of knowing how to stay safe online, by children.


When exploring the background of these groups; 77% of 15-16 years are (net) confident in knowing how to stay safe online compared to 66% of 9-11 year olds – more of the younger group fall into the ‘unsure’ category than being unconfident. Yet amongst 15-16 year olds, 82% have experienced an online harm compared to 73% of 9-11 year olds. This may be explained by having a greater presence online but there does not seem a strong correlation between being confident in knowing how to stay safe online to avoiding online harms.

Online harms can happen to anyone at any time regardless of confidence or capabilities. Where the confidence becomes beneficial is in knowing how to take preventative measures and, when online harms are experienced, knowing how to respond.

A positive outcome is that self-confident children are more likely to take affirmative action when they do come across an online harm, e.g. changing their privacy settings – 22% of ‘confident’ children took this action compared to 16% of ‘unconfident’ children. Whilst those with less confidence were more likely to rely on their friendship network (36%) compared to those with more confidence (27%).


Our findings show that in some areas parents and children have a similar understanding of children’s online lives. But in others they differ, with children having very different experiences than parents perceive. This misalignment raises questions about how effectively parents are supporting children – how can they be supporting children with online harms they do not even know children are experiencing?

Part 2 of the series: Exploring the impact of online harms on children

In the next report of this series, we will explore what the reported impact is of online harms experienced by children. We will look into which groups are most impacted, and what steps can be taken to help support and protect children from experiencing online harms in the first instance.

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