Share Cymraeg English

Safeguarding children from online abuse


Last updated: February 2021

To be used in conjunction with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures

Who is this practice guide for?

This guide is primarily for practitioners working with children (up to the age of 18).

This includes those working in early years, social care, education, health, the police, youth offending and youth, community and family support services (including the third sector) and foster care and residential care.

What is this guide for?

Safeguarding children is a responsibility shared by everyone in contact with children.

The Wales Safeguarding Procedures support individuals and agencies across Wales to understand their roles and responsibilities in keeping children and adults safe. They support a consistent approach to safeguarding practice and procedures.

This practice guide provides additional information about safeguarding responses to children who are at risk of online abuse or who are abused online. It should be used in conjunction with the Wales Safeguarding Procedures.

Effective safeguarding arrangements in every local authority area should be underpinned by two key principles:

There are some issues which are common across safeguarding practice guides and some which are specific to the safeguarding issue being considered:

Online abuse takes a number of forms2:

How does grooming work online?

Grooming on-line can be far easier than offline for perpetrators because:

Evidence base

The same research found that online child sexual abuse has as much impact on a child as offline abuse. The children interviewed for the research experienced: self-blame; flashbacks or intrusive thoughts; depression and low self-esteem; nightmares and trouble sleeping; anxiety and panic attacks; self-harm; problems at school, such as difficulty keeping up with work or behavioural problems. In addition some children experienced: Fear of sexual images being shared online or being viewed in the future. Being filmed led some children to feel uncomfortable around cameras. Also, children who had been in constant contact with the person who abused them via digital technology could become very fatigued – this was especially the case if they were in contact at night time. Some of the young people interviewed felt that the initial abuse had made them more vulnerable to further abuse by sexualising them, leading them to drink heavily or take risks or reducing their sense of self-worth and confidence. A high proportion of young people blamed themselves for the abuse. This appeared to be triggered or made worse by unsupportive approaches from school, peers and family.

Children in care and adopted children

The internet – and social networks in particular – can facilitate contact with a child’s birth family. Some children may find the internet and social networks a great way of staying in touch with family members and this can be really beneficial. However, there will be situations when contact with family members is not beneficial. Despite this, many fostered or adopted children will have a natural curiosity about their birth family, particularly in their teenage years. They may turn to the internet to explore any unanswered questions, or they may be contacted directly by their birth family. Foster carers and adoptive parents should be given information and advice about preparing for and managing this situation, and more general information about keeping children safe on-line provides information.

Abusive online behaviour between children

Research suggests9 that there are broad range of issues, ranging from hurtful behaviour (for example, name calling on social media) to complex and harmful (for example, using threat of distribution of indecent images to coerce sexual acts), and that these cannot all be dealt with in the same manner.

Children who are harmed and children who harm should both be treated as vulnerable and as possible victims, and practitioners should bear in mind that a child may be a perpetrator and also a victim of abuse or exploitation. The response to children must be proportionate and provided at the least intrusive level, as appropriate to each case.

Online Harmful Sexual Behaviour

This relates to concerns in relation to children demonstrating sexual behaviour online or through the use of technology, where there may be harm to themselves or others. We may consider that harm in this area includes the following:

Online radicalisation

Safeguarding leads should familiarise themselves with the referral route or Single Point of Contact (SPOC) provided by the police specifically for Prevent and Channel cases.

When and how to report online content to the Police

A proportionate response

When a child has been reported under section 130, the local authority must consider whether there are grounds for carrying out an investigation under section 47 of the Children Act 1989.


Based on Hackett’s continuum of children and young people’s sexual behaviours (Hackett, 2010).

Normal – Online behaviours that are developmentally expected/ socially acceptable, consensual, mutual, reciprocal.

Examples: Two adolescents in a consensual romantic relationship send messages to one another, that have sexual content

A child / young person looks up information about body changes / puberty

Inappropriate – Single instances of inappropriate sexual behaviour / socially acceptable behaviour within peer group

Examples: Two adolescents in a consensual romantic relationship send self-produced naked images to one another

A young person looks at pornography occasionally

Child makes a deliberate search for sexual / age inappropriate content, but this is not repeated following sanctions

Problematic – Problematic and concerning behaviours, developmentally unusually and socially unexpected, no overt elements of victimisation

Examples: Young person sends a sexual message to another young person, which is unwanted

Young person sends a sexual picture to another young person that is unwanted

Child makes persistent deliberate searches for sexual / age inappropriate content

Young person persistently views pornography, to an extent that it is impacting on his / her welfare and emotional well-being

Abusive – Victimising intent or outcome, includes misuse of power, intrusive, informed consent lacking or not freely given by victim

Examples: Young person deliberately views / downloads indecent images of children

Young person deliberately makes indecent images of another child / young person, with the intention of sharing this with others

Young person exposes younger or more vulnerable child to sexually explicit content

Young person persistently sends sexual images / sexual messages to other people, without their consent and this may or may not include elements of threat or intimidation

Child regularly views sexually explicit content and is unable to cease this


Examples: Child or young person views and reports being aroused to violent / extreme sexual content

These organisations are there for all children and young people in Wales. Professionals and practitioners should let children know about these organisations and how to contact them.

Meic is the helpline service for children and young people up to the age of 25 in Wales. From finding out what’s going on in your local area to help dealing with a tricky situation, Meic will listen even when no-one else will. They won’t judge you and will help by giving you information, useful advice and the support you need to make a change. You can:

You can contact the Children's Commissioner for Wales Investigation and Advice service which is free and confidential. It’s there as a source of help and support if children and young people or those who care for them feel that a child’s been treated unfairly. You or you parent/carer can:

Childline is a free, private and confidential service where anyone under 19 can access support and advice. The Childline website has information and advice pages as well as tools to help you work through problems yourself. If you want to talk or chat to Childline you can:

If you want to talk to Childline in Welsh see

Information for parents and carers

Information and support for children and parent/carers is available from a number of sources including:, and the NSPCC Online Safety Helpline 0808 800 5002

The NSPCC has produced the following helpful suggestions to help keep your child safe:

Children don’t think of people they have met online through social networking and online games as strangers – they are just online friends. Point out that it’s a lot easier for people to lie online than it is in real life. Ideally be friends with your child on social media, but if they resist, ask a friend or family member you both trust to try.

Take an interest in your child’s online activities in the same way you do with their offline activities. What is their criteria for choosing friends? How come they have so many? Don’t be afraid to ask, as it’s important to discuss online safety with them.

Agree on some ground rules together. Consider the amount of time they are allowed to spend online, the websites they visit and the activities they take part in.

Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Sky or BT, provide parental controls for laptops, phones, tablets, game consoles and other devices that connect to the internet. Parental controls help you filter or restrict what your child can see online.

Check the privacy settings on your child’s social media accounts to keep personal information private. Talk to them about what to do if they see worrying or upsetting content or if someone contacts them and makes them feel anxious or uncomfortable.

Many websites have tools to report abuse – make sure they know about these too.

There are some great websites to help you learn more about child online safety, such as Internet Matters, Safer Internet and Childnet. If you are concerned about something, you can call the NSPCC’s online safety helpline on 0808 800 5002.

Online abuse and the law

Communications Act 2003 - Throughout the UK, the Act makes it an offence to make improper use of a public communications network. Section 127 specifically makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.

Malicious Communications Act 1988 - In England and Wales, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety.

Across the UK, the legislation setting out sexual offences also applies to online child sexual abuse, including:

Trafficking and modern slavery legislation across the UK makes it an offence to traffic and/or enslave children for sexual exploitation and makes provisions for sentencing offenders. These can also apply to trafficking children for online sexual exploitation.

Sexual Offences Act 2003 Consent: The age of consent (the legal age to have sex) in the UK is 16 years old. The laws are there to protect children. They are not there to prosecute under-16s who have mutually consenting sexual activity but will be used if there is abuse or exploitation involved. To help protect younger children the law says anyone under the age of 13 can never legally give consent. This means that anyone engaging in sexual activity with a child who is 12 or younger will be subject to penalties set out under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The law also gives extra protection to young people who are 16 to 17 years old. It is illegal to take, show or distribute indecent photographs.

Serious Crime Act 2015- The offence criminalises conduct where an adult intentionally communicates (for example, by e-mail, text message, written note or verbally) with a child under 16 (whom the adult does not reasonably believe to be aged 16 or over) for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification if the communication is sexual or intended to encourage the child to make a communication that is sexual (new section 15A (1) and (2)).

Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 - places a legal duty on specified authorities, including the police, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This is also known as the ‘Prevent duty’. It places a number of responsibilities on those authorities and their partners.




4 Lorenzo-Dus, N et al (2016) Understanding grooming discourse in computer-mediated environments. Discourse, Context and Media. 12. 40-50


6Hwb On-line Safety Site is the Welsh Government education resources site for educators. is a bilingual site from the All-Wales School Liaison Core Programme, providing information and resources for teachers, pupils and parents to follow up on the lessons provided to primary and secondary school children by School Community Police Officers.




10 Hackett, S (2010). Children, young people and sexual violence. In Barter, C and Berridge, D (eds) Children behaving badly? Exploring peer violence between children and young people. London: Blackwell Wiley.




Download this guide as a PDF