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E-Safety: Children Exposed to Abuse through the Digital Media

Quick Links:

Protection and Action to be Taken
Further Information
Amendments to this Chapter


‘Internet Abuse’ relates to four main areas 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;
  • Exposure to pornographic images and or 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 term digital (data carrying signals carrying electronic or optical pulses) and interactive (a message relates to other previous message/s and the relationship between them) technology covers a range of electronic tools. These are constantly being upgraded and their use has become more widespread as the internet can be accessed easily on mobile / smart phones, laptops, computers, tablets and games consoles.

Social networking sites are often 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 that are intolerant of diversity: this is similar to the grooming process and exploits the same vulnerabilities.

Internet abuse may also include cyber-bullying or online bullying (see Bullying). This is when a child is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child using the internet and/or mobile devices. In the case of online bullying it is possible for one victim to be bullied by many perpetrators.

Sexting is a term used when a person 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 you to share media and messages.

Sexting can be seen as harmless, 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 (see College of Policing - Briefing note: Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery ('Sexting')).

E-Safety is the generic term that refers to raising awareness about how children, young people and adults can protect themselves when using digital technology and 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 Organised and Complex Abuse and Allegations Against Staff or Volunteers should be borne in mind depending on the circumstances of the concerns.

For general advice you can visit the Cumbria Police website "Advice Centre" where there are numerous sections around online child sexual abuse including Protecting Children & Sexting Issues.


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 involved directly in child abuse themselves.

In particular, an individual’s access to children should be established during the assessment and Section 47 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.


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.

The initial indicators of child abuse are likely to be changes in behaviour and mood of the child victim. Clearly such changes can also be attributed to many innocent events in a child’s life and cannot be regarded as diagnostic. However changes to a child’s circle of friends or a noticeable change in attitude towards the use of computer or phone could have their origin in abusive behaviour. Similarly a change in their friends or not wanting to be alone with a particular person may be a sign that something is upsetting them.

Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.

Protection and Action to be Taken

The Serious Crime Act (2015) introduced a new offence of “sexual communication with a child”. This applies to an adult, who communicates with a child and where 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 under 16 years of age.

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.

Anyone with concerns should use the term CHANNEL on any referral to ensure that the appropriate authority is informed.

Suspected online terrorist material can be reported through Report online terrorist material (GOV.UK Website). 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 (UK Safer Internet Centre website).

Where there is suspected or actual evidence of anyone accessing or creating indecent images of children, this must be shared with the Police.

Online Grooming

Where there are concerns about a child being groomed, exposed to pornographic material or contacted by someone inappropriately, via the internet or other ICT tools like a mobile phone, a contact to the Cumbria Safeguarding Hub should be made in accordance with the Multi-agency Thresholds Guidance (including Referrals); where the situation is an emergency, the local Police should be contacted immediately.

All such reports should be taken seriously. Referrals will normally lead to a Strategy Discussion to determine the course of further investigation, enquiry and assessment. Any intervention should be continually under review especially if further evidence comes to light.

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/or Cumbria Safeguarding Hub 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.

Cumbria Procedures

  1. Whenever evidence emerges of potential child abuse through the Internet or other electronic media Cumbria Police should be contacted by ringing 101 or in an emergency 999. The Command and Control room officer will risk assess the call to decide the most appropriate response (see also Cumbria Police website - General Enquiries);
  2. The Police will provide advice as to whether an offence may have occurred and if so commence a criminal investigation making appropriate enquiries including examining or seizing computers and other electronic equipment for examination;
  3. Under the new bail act most suspects will be released under investigation and therefore the Police are unable to place bail conditions on them. Every case will be treated individually and a Police Vulnerable Child form will be submitted to the Safeguarding Hub for review. Children’s Services may call a Strategy Meeting in order to draw up a Safeguarding agreement with the family as well as the existing threshold considerations;
  4. If these enquiries produce evidence of an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 or any other statute they will: review the case with the Evidence Review Officer (ERO) and if the case reaches the relevant threshold will pass the file to the Crown Prosecution Service who will decide on whether to proceed to formal prosecution;
  5. In the event that the individual either accepts a caution or is convicted for a relevant offence they may be placed on the Sex Offenders Register, which will require them to report to the Police and for them to be subject to supervision within the community;
  6. The Police will always contact Children’s Services in the event that it is suspected that a parent or carer or someone with access to children in other contexts e.g. employment;
    • Is in possession of child abusive images of children;
    • Has taken, shown or distributed child abusive images of children; and/or
    • Has used the internet or other electronic media to make inappropriate approaches to children.
    The Police will also contact Children’s Services if they have a vulnerable child witness and wish to conduct a joint interview for evidential purposes or they have a child victim who may need a specialist victim service to ensure that the child/young person has the advice and support they need;
  7. Children’s Services will discuss with the Police whether a Strategy Meeting is required and if so will set one up to make decisions on whether Section 47 Enquiries are required in respect of specific children with whom the individual has contact or other actions are appropriate. If the person has access to children through employment or voluntary work the procedure for managing allegations (see Allegations Against Staff or Volunteers) against those who work with children apply and the Local Authority Designated Officer must be consulted;
  8. Section 47 Enquiries and Child and Family Assessments conducted on children who may be at risk of harm from an alleged abuser must always include a ‘risk assessment’ in respect of the risk of harm to the child. The NSPCC will offer to undertake joint assessments with Children's Social Care in cases where there is a possible risk arising from adults who have accessed inappropriate/indecent images on the internet;
  9. In the event that the assessment concludes that a child is at risk of Significant Harm from the alleged abuser consideration will need to be given to issues of immediate protection if required and a Child Protection Conference must be convened.


When communicating via the internet, young people tend to 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 young people 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 and young people 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 or other trusted adult before providing such details. It is also important that they understand why they must take a parent or trusted adult with them if they meet someone face to face who they have only previously met on-line.

Children and young people should be warned about the risks of taking sexually explicit pictures of themselves and sharing them on the internet or by text. It is essential, therefore, that young people understand the legal implications and the risks they are taking. The initial risk posed by sexting may come from peers, friends and/or others in their social network who may share the images. However, once an image has been sent, it can then be shared with others or posted online. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act (2015) introduced the offence of Revenge Porn where intimate images are shared with the intent to cause distress to the specific victim.

Where young people are voluntarily sending/sharing sexual images or content with one another the Police are likely to use the ‘outcome 21’ recording code to record that a crime has been committed but that it is not considered to be in the public interest to take criminal action against the people involved. This reduces stigma and distress for children and help to minimise the long term impact of the situation. See College of Policing, Briefing Note: Police Action in response to Youth Produced Sexual Imagery ('Sexting').

In some cases adults may also groom a young person into sending such images which can then be used to blackmail and ensnare them. – see Child Sexual Exploitation.

Further Information

See MAPPA Guidance (2012 - Updated December 2016)

See UK Safer Internet website and CEOP, thinkUknow website

Coram Children’s Legal Centre - LawStuff is run by Coram Children’s Legal Centre and gives free legal information to young people on a range of different issues. See Children’s rights in the digital world in particular.

Childnet Advice on Sexting

Child Safety Online - A Practical Guide for Parents and Carers whose Children and Using Social Media.

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

Behaviour that is illegal if committed offline is also illegal if committed online. It is recommended that legal advice is sought in the event of an online issue or situation. There are a number of pieces of legislation that may apply including:

Communications Act 2003

Sending by means of the internet a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or sending a false message by means of or persistently making use of the Internet for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety is guilty of an offence liable, on conviction, to imprisonment. This wording is important because an offence is complete as soon as the message has been sent: there is no need to prove any intent or purpose.

Protection of Children Act 1978

It is an offence to take, permit to be taken, make, possess, show, distribute or advertise indecent images of children in the United Kingdom. A child for these purposes is anyone under the age of 18. Viewing an indecent image of a child on your computer means that you have made a digital image. An image of a child also covers pseudo-photographs (digitally collated or otherwise). A person convicted of such an offence may face up to 10 years in prison.

Sexual Offences Act 2003

The offence of grooming is committed if you are over 18 and have communicated with a child under 16 at least twice (including by phone or using the Internet) it is an offence to meet them or travel to meet them anywhere in the world with the intention of committing a sexual offence. Causing a child under 16 to watch a sexual act is illegal, including looking at images such as videos, photos or webcams, for your own gratification. It is also an offence for a person in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with any person under 18, with whom they are in a position of trust. (Typically, teachers, social workers, health professionals, connexions staff fall in this category of trust). Any sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 13 commits the offence of rape.

Serious Crime Act 2015

The Act introduces a new offence of sexual communication with a child. This would criminalise an adult who communicates with a child for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, where 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 under 16.

Amendments to this Chapter

In August 2019, this guidance was reviewed and refreshed as required. In the Further Information section, a link was added to the Catch 22 publication Social Media as a Catalyst and Trigger for Youth Violence.