1.4.5 Child Abuse and Information Communication Technology


Child Safety Online – Government Guidance for Parents and Carers whose Children use Social Media

For further reading, please see Child Exploitation and On-Line Protection Centre (CEOP). CEOP works to protect children, families and society from paedophiles and sex offenders - in particular those who seek to exploit children sexually online.

Talking to your Child About Online Sexual Harassment (Children's Commissioner)


In December 2022, a link was added to Talking to your Child About Online Sexual Harassment (Children's Commissioner).

1. Child Abuse and the Internet

Internet or Online Abuse includes the following forms of abuse to children:

  • Sharing and production of abusive images of children (although these are not confined to the Internet);
  • A child or young person being groomed online for the purpose of Sexual Abuse;
  • A child or young person being exposed to pornographic images and other offensive material via the internet; and
  • The use of the internet, and in particular social media sites, to engage children in extremist ideologies or to promote gang related violence.

The internet can be accessed easily on mobile and smart phones, laptops, computers, tablets and games consoles.

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

Internet abuse also includes online-bullying. This is when a child is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child via the internet and/or mobile devices. In the case of online bullying it is possible for one victim to be bullied by many perpetrators. In any case of severe bullying it may be appropriate to consider the behaviour as child abuse by another young person.

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 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 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.

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.

Online safety is a generic term that refers to raising awareness about how children, young people and adults can protect themselves when using digital technology / in the online environment, and provides examples of interventions that can reduce the level of risk for children and young people.

The chapters relating to Complex (Organised or Multiple) Abuse and Allegations Against Persons who Work with Children should be borne in mind depending on the circumstances of the concerns.

2. Adults who Access Indecent Images Online

There is some 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 directly involved in the abuse of children. When someone is discovered to have uploaded or accessed such material on the Internet, the Police must consider the possibility that the individual is involved in the active abuse of children. 

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 with children 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 online is illegal.

3. 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 online who desire friendship. To this end, social networking sites are used by perpetrators as an easy way to access children.

Perpetrators 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.

4. Guidance upon the Discovery of Indecent Images of Children

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 individual. 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.

All organisations should have Acceptable Use policies and procedures for staff and volunteers.

It is a criminal act under Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 for any person to make and distribute indecent images of children. These are arrestable offences.

Upon the receipt of any information concerning a person who is suspected of accessing indecent images of children online, their employer head should notify the Police (Child and Public Protection Unit) immediately.

The computer should be left and not used by anyone, allowing this to be seized as evidence for forensic examination by the Police. The details of all persons having access to the computer should be made available to allow a clear evidence trail to be established.

5. Referral and Strategy Discussion

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 Services - see Section 6, Outcome of the Section 47 Enquiry.

Online Grooming

Where there are concerns about a child being groomed, exposed to pornographic material or contacted by someone inappropriately, via the internet, a referral should be made Children's Social Care Services.

All such reports should be taken seriously. Most referrals will be followed by a Single Assessment and information should be shared between the Police and Children's Social Care Services in order to determine whether a Strategy Discussion should take place. 

Due to the nature of this type of abuse and the possibility of the destruction of evidence, the referrer should first discuss their concerns with the Police and Children's Social Care Services 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.

A Strategy Discussion and any Section 47 Enquiry must carefully consider:

  • Is there a child at immediate risk of Significant Harm e.g. the child in the image or a child in the household?
  • What is the impact on the child in the image/in the household in terms of risks and their needs?
  • Are there other children visiting the household? What is the impact on them? 
  • Is the child about to meet with the person inappropriately contacting them?
  • Is the person accessing images or creating them in contact with children in their workplace?
  • Is the person inappropriately contacting the child in contact with children in their workplace?
  • Is the person accessing or creating images involved in voluntary work, youth work or any other activity involving positions of trust?
  • Is the person inappropriately contacting the child involved in voluntary work, youth work or any other activity involving a position of trust?
  • What is the timescale for a forensic investigation of any computer equipment?
  • If the person is to be investigated, how should their contact with children be managed in the meantime, in the workplace and/or at home?
  • Should other procedures, such as the Allegations Against Persons who Work with Children Procedure be triggered?
  • Is the other parent or any other carer in the household able to protect the child? What support networks do they have?
  • What are the implications of the likely delay in the criminal investigations?

Intervention should be continually under review if further evidence comes to light.

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 GOV.UK. Reports can be made anonymously, although practitioners should not do so as they must follow the procedures for professionals.

Content of concern can also be reported directly to social media platforms – see Safety features on social networks.

6. Outcome of the Section 47 Enquiry

Where the enquiries have revealed that there are children in the household or in regular contact with the household about whom there are concerns of continuing risk of Significant Harm, an Initial Child Protection Conference must be convened within 15 working days of the last Strategy Discussion.

Where there are no children identified in the adult's household or immediate home environment but the adult is in contact with children in other settings such as work or other activities, the relevant procedure such as the Allegations Against Persons who Work with Children Procedure should be followed.

Where the person, who is alleged to have accessed or created the indecent images or groomed another child, is a child, action under the Harmful Sexual Behaviour Procedure should be considered.

7. Actions to be taken where an Employee has Concerns about a Colleague

Where an employee has either information or reason to suspect that a colleague is accessing indecent images of children, the following procedures must be followed:

  1. The employee with the concerns must inform his/her own line manager the same working day;
  2. Where the concerns are about the line manager, then the employee should go straight to the next in line senior manager, or any other senior manager, within the same working day;
  3. The manager who receives the information should ensure the computer in question is appropriately secured, and that it is not used by any other employee;
  4. The Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) must be contacted the same day;
  5. Where an employee does not feel confident in informing any available line manager, then the agency's own whistle-blowing procedures should be used;
  6. The LADO and the manager will ensure that the Police Child and Public Protection Unit is contacted and actions agreed the same working day;
  7. Identified senior managers will discuss and agree appropriate immediate actions regarding the employee subject to the allegations. There should be liaison with the LADO and the views of the police should be canvassed to inform the decision;
  8. The Local Authority Designated Officer will ensure the Child Protection Procedures are followed, including the Allegations Against Persons who Work with Children Procedure, where appropriate.

8. Keeping Children Safe Online

When communicating via the internet, children can 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.

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.

It is essential that young people understand the legal implications and the risks they are taking. The initial risk posed by sexting or sharing nudes and semi-nudes may come from peers, friends and others in their social network who may share the images. However, once an image has been sent, it can be shared with others or posted online.

Where young people are voluntarily sending/sharing sexual images or content with one another, the West Yorkshire 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: Childnet Advice on Sexting

9. Further Information

UK Safer Internet website

CEOP, thinkUknow website

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

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

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.

The Dark Web Explained (for Professionals)

The Dark Web Explained (for Parents and Carers)

Online safety SEND resources

The Risk of Online Sexual Abuse (ROSA) Project – report on research with young people between the ages of 10-18 who had exhibited technology-assisted harmful sexual behaviour (TA-HSB)