Understanding online risks

The use of some form of technology features in many cases of child sexual exploitation. Perpetrators might use social media to locate and target vulnerable children or they might use a mobile phone as a direct line to a child to facilitate the grooming process.

Children growing up today might not see a distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ worlds and being online is very much a part of their normal social experience. At the same time, technology moves quickly and it can be difficult for parents to keep up and to know what safeguards might help minimise the risks children could encounter online.

This section details some of the monitoring and safety options available to help you set and change online boundaries in line with your child’s development and your concerns. In the first instance, be sure to talk to your child about what they do online in the same way as you ask them about what they do offline. Ask them about what they share, who they talk to, how they know their online friends and what they do to keep themselves safe.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones can be a key tool used by perpetrators in grooming a child and many parents who begin to have concerns about their child’s behaviour and child sexual exploitation will wonder where to set the boundaries when it comes to mobiles.

Our parent support workers suggest that at a low level of risk or for early intervention, parents could consider taking a child’s mobile from them at night when they go to bed. To maintain the child’s privacy and trust, parents can leave the phone with the child but keep the battery and sim card or lock the phone in a box that the child keeps, while the parent keeps the key.

At a higher level of risk, consider shutting off the internet at a certain time each night via your service provider or restricting your child’s mobile from being able to send photos in messages. Apps like snapchat – a popular app that sends a temporary image file to the receiver to view for a few seconds before the file expires – will still work, but there are additional tools available to consider as well, such as Selfie Cop, an app that will send a copy of any photo taken on the mobile to the parent.

Learn more about smartphones at Safer Internet.

Social Media

If possible, keep a list of your child’s usernames and passwords for all of their social media accounts as this information could be passed on to the police during an investigation or when a child goes missing.

Social networks will generally have a minimum age requirement and most social networking tools now give your child a lot of control over what they share and who they share it with. Through a site’s ‘privacy settings’ you are usually able to control:

  • Who can search for you
  • Who sees what you share (Note: It is a good idea to restrict accounts for young people to friends only.)
  • Who can post information about you

It is important that you stay up-to-date with the privacy settings for any social media that your child uses and to help them stay in control of their profile. Review the information for parents for the following popular social media platforms:

Internet service providers & parental controls

Filtering and moderation packages are a good way to prevent your child from coming across the majority of inappropriate and harmful content available.

Parental controls generally allow you to:

  • Filter content to restrict access to particular sites, such as pornographic websites
  • Set time limits that restrict the amount of time your child can be online or to set periods of time where your child can access certain sites
  • Monitor online activity so that you are informed of certain sites that your child is attempting to gain access to
  • Receive a report where you are provided with information about what sites your child has used

The major internet providers (Virgin Media, BT, Talk Talk, Sky etc) provide some kind of parental control package, but there are also controls you can place on devices themselves (such as computers, mobiles and game consoles) and there are also third party security software packages to consider.

Read about the parental control packages available from the major providers:

Sexting

Sexting, or the sending of a sexually explicit image, can be a feature of sexual exploitation.

According to ACPO, “the taking of such photographs is often due to children and young people taking risks and pushing boundaries as they become more sexually and socially aware. With the prevalence of mobile phones with cameras and internet access and the increased use of Bluetooth technology, images can be shared easily between friends. Sharing indecent images in this way is colloquially known by the term ‘sexting’ and it can have extremely damaging effects.”

Sharing images of themselves might be considered a ‘rational act with irrational consequences’. The reality is that many children are sharing images of themselves and in some cases these are the result of grooming and facilitation by adult perpetrators.

Once a child shares an image of themselves, they might be blackmailed by the perpetrator and could feel ashamed, cornered and worried about what would happen if their images were shared. If a child does share an image of themselves, it’s important to emphasise to them that whatever happens things will be ok. Retrieving or removing the image might not be possible, but there are ways to report indecent images.

Recent media coverage has highlighted how complicated the law is when it comes to the phenomenon of sexting, as a child who sends an indecent image of themselves could be considered a perpetrator under the law. The relevant legislation is Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 as amended by section 45 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to extend definition of child from under 16 to under 18, which states that:

“It is a crime to take, make, permit to take, distribute, show, possess with intent to distribute, or to advertise indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of any person below the age of 18.”

However, ACPO has released guidance that clearly states that they do not “support the prosecution or criminalisation of children for taking indecent images of themselves and sharing them” and that “a safeguarding approach should be at the heart of any intervention” in accordance with Department for Education guidance, which states that the focus of investigations should be on the perpetrator, not the child’s behaviour.

For more information on how to deal with sexting, check out this resource from Safer Internet.

Reporting online abuse

The Internet Watch Foundation
The UK Hotline and takedown service for reporting criminal online content, including child sexual abuse content hosted anywhere in the world.

Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP)
Part of the National Crime Agency, you can report online grooming behaviour to CEOP. Fill in a report if someone is acting inappropriately towards you, or a child or young person that you know, such as a sexual chat or being asked to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable or someone insistent on meeting up.

Social Media Platforms
You can also request that the host or platform for the content take down the content directly if it violates their terms of service. See how to report child sexual exploitation to:

For more platform-specific advice, including game consoles, check out Childnet.

Your local police
Parents can also make reports to their local police forces. In an emergency or if a crime is ongoing, always dial 999.