In this article
According to the Alan Turing Institute, online abuse is receiving much more attention in the UK these days. The Institute’s systematic review of evidence states that it is important to understand the prevalence of online abuse to be able to understand its causes and how best to challenge it. However, estimating the prevalence is tricky.
The incidence of online abuse that has been legally defined as such is extraordinarily low. England and Wales recorded just 1,605 instances of hate crime in 2017/18.
The Alan Turing Institute estimates that there is fewer than one offence for every 1,000 people in the UK. However, the following year, the figures for online hate crimes were not reported as there were concerns about the quality of the data.
Thinktank and academic measurement studies state that the prevalence of online abuse is up to 1% of all content. Having said that, concerns are often raised as to whether platforms can and do moderate enough, with many saying that there are still huge quantities of abusive content present online.
In contrast to the published data, survey data tells a starkly different story. The Alan Turing Institute reports that between 30% and 40% of UK citizens have been the victim of online abuse personally. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data for the year ending March 2020 also shows that around one in five children aged between 10 and 15 years old in England and Wales experienced at least one form of online abuse in the preceding year. This equates to around 19% or 764,000 children.
Interestingly, over half of the children who reported experiencing online bullying stated that they would not have described the behaviour as bullying and over a quarter did not report their bullying experiences to anyone (52% and 26% respectively).
Given that the children did not believe that their experiences amounted to online bullying, it is important to ascertain what is meant exactly by the term ‘online abuse’.
What is online abuse?
Whilst there is no legal definition of online abuse, it can be described as a range of behaviours that causes harm or distress to another person. Online abuse includes personal harassment and/or attacks towards an individual or against a group of people (this is also often known as ‘hate speech’).
To put it more simply, online abuse is any sort of abuse that happens on the internet via any device. It can happen anywhere at any time on mobile phones, games consoles, computers, laptops and tablets.
Online abuse can be the only form of abuse that a person experiences or it can be a part of a wider pattern of abuse including or leading to offline abuse.
Anyone can experience online abuse, but children and young people are particularly at risk of experiencing it. Consequently, adults must be aware of the warning signs of abuse so that they are best placed to help and stop it.
What are the signs of online abuse?
The signs of online abuse are often difficult to spot and will invariably be different for everyone.
Let us have a look at some of the most common signs in children who are experiencing abuse online:
- A change in online habits. A child could be spending more time online than usual or less time than usual. They could also have increased or decreased the amount that they are gaming or using their mobile phone.
- Seeming angry, distant or upset after being online or when asked to come off their device.
- Becoming secretive about their online habits including what they are doing on the mobile phone and who they are talking to.
- Having lots of telephone numbers, email addresses, texts, or friends on social medial platforms.
- Doing worse at school.
- Losing confidence.
- Becoming more anxious or withdrawn.
- Starting to bully others.
- Having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is much older.
- Having money for new things.
- Taking risks, including starting to drink alcohol, taking drugs or smoking.
- Using more inappropriate language.
- Sexualised behaviour and language.
- Having an inappropriate understanding of sex beyond what is usual for their age.
- Spending more time away from home or going missing from home.
One or more of these signs could be an indication that a child is suffering from online abuse. However, it must be noted that some of these signs do not always mean that a child is experiencing abuse.
Of course, as adults, we must recognise the signs and address them to help to resolve any issues that children and young people have, whether or not their changed behaviour is down to online abuse.
Where does online abuse take place?
Online abuse is not restricted to one platform. Indeed, online abuse can take place anywhere where there is access to contact with others. This means that online abuse is experienced through messaging platforms including text messaging and instant messaging services such as WhatsApp as well as via email.
It also occurs on social media platforms including (but not limited to) Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Video streaming services such as YouTube and TikTok can also be a place where users experience abuse online. Aside from the more well-known platforms, any online chats, forums or live-streaming sites are known sources of online bullying, regardless of niche or topic.
Gaming is also not exempt from online abuse and many people experience online abuse through voice chat in videogames.
When online abuse occurs, it is often not limited to just one platform or source. Additionally, online abuse can follow people wherever they go due to its nature. Indeed, the ONS reports that almost three-quarters of children (72%) who had experienced online abuse experienced at least some of it at school or during the school day.
The prevalence of devices such as smartphones has had a huge impact on the nature of online abuse. Those who abuse others online have the opportunity to do so at any time of day with a simple reach into their pocket.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not helped matters in this regard as children are now spending increasing amounts of time online either through home learning or in connecting with others when they are otherwise unable.
Sophie Sanders, from the ONS Centre for Crime and Justice, states:
“Greater use of smartphones, social media and networking applications means online bullying can follow a child anywhere they go.”
“… children’s isolation at home [due to the coronavirus pandemic] and increased time spent on the internet is likely to have had a substantial impact on the split between real-world and cyberbullying.”
What are the effects of online abuse?
Online abuse can affect children and young people both in the short term and long term. Those who experience online abuse will not all suffer from the same effects. Also, many of the effects of online abuse are similar to the effects of other types of abuse.
The list of possible effects of online abuse is therefore substantial and includes:
- Low self-esteem.
- Eating disorders.
- Post-traumatic stress.
- Difficulty in coping with stress.
- Suicidal tendencies or thoughts.
- Feelings of shame and guilt.
- Relationship problems with family and friends.
- Drug and alcohol problems.
Given that online abuse often leads to or is concurrent with other forms of abuse, some other potential effects are sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. This is particularly the case with internet grooming.
What are the different types of online abuse?
There are many different types of online abuse. The one thing that they have in common is that all of them cause intentional distress to the person on the receiving end.
Online abuse can fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Emotional abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Sexual exploitation.
Cyberbullying is also known as online bullying. When someone experiences cyberbullying, it can be relentless as there is often no escape or safe space online and it can happen day or night. Additionally, online bullies are often harder to trace and can also be anonymous.
There are many ways that cyberbullies operate:
- Sending abusive or threatening messages.
- Sharing or creating embarrassing photographs or videos.
- Exclusion – Intentionally excluding someone from a group chat, online activity or online game with the intent that the person sees that they are being excluded.
- Shaming someone in a post or comment online.
- Setting up a hate website directed to someone or a group of people.
- Encouraging self-harming behaviours.
- Creating a fake account or hijacking someone’s online identity to misrepresent them online.
- Stalking someone online.
- ‘Creeping’ – Where a person follows another’s every move on their social medial platforms but does not interact (although this is often done in secret).
- Withholding interactions online – Someone can see that a person is interacting, commenting and liking on others’ posts or activity online but is deliberately avoiding interacting with the victim.
- Flaming – Where a person known to the victim instigates an online fight through hurtful messages targeted at another using strong or harsh language usually in a public setting.
- Trolling – Sending messages/commenting on social network posts, online games or in chat rooms. The victim of trolling is not often known to the cyberbully.
- Doxing or outing – This is when someone shares personal information online without the consent of the person to cause emotional harm or embarrassment. This can include screenshots of private messages or images.
- Masquerading – Where a bully adopts an online persona to bully someone that they know and protect their identity in the process.
The ONS states that the two most common forms of online bullying experienced by 10% of all children aged 10 to 15 years old were being called names, being sworn at or insulted and having nasty messages about them sent to them.
Online emotional abuse
Many forms of online abuse overlap, and emotional abuse can and does play a part in any form of cyberbullying, as described above.
Emotional abuse can also include blackmail where someone is pressured into doing something that they do not want to do for fear of repercussions from the perpetrator. Such threats can include the threat of sharing images (including revenge porn) and the sharing of information (as described in doxing). Of course, the blackmail threats could also be offline and/or physical repercussions if a demand is not met.
Sexting is where someone shares sexual content online usually via private messages. This can include sending nude or semi-nude images or videos or sexually explicit written content in a message. Sexting is often engaged in willingly by both participants who are of a similar age.
However, it can become online sexual abuse and/or sexual exploitation if someone receives unsolicited sexual content or is coerced into taking or sending sexual or nude images. This also applies if one of the participants is much older and/or is in a position of authority.
Sexual abuse can and does happen in person. However, sexual abuse can also be a form of online abuse. This occurs when someone is tricked or forced into any sexual activity. This can be tricking or forcing someone to watch, make or share a sexual video or view a sexual image, as well as taking part in sexual activities or sexual conversations online whether written, verbal or live streamed.
Of course, there is a definite overlap with sexting (as described above). Sexting becomes abuse when it is not solicited, when one person is much older or is in a position of authority or when sexting involves coercion. Online sexual abuse is often a precursor to physical sexual abuse.
Online sexual exploitation
Sexual exploitation is a type of online sexual abuse. This sexual exploitation involves manipulation. The perpetrator of the abuse deliberately manipulates or coerces their victim into participating in sexual activity including creating sexually explicit content and having sexual conversations.
Grooming often takes place before online sexual abuse, as described above. It also happens in the build-up to real-life sexual abuse. Online grooming is the building of a relationship via the internet where trust and an emotional connection is established for the purposes of exploitation such as sexual abuse, trafficking and criminal exploitation, as well as radicalisation.
Children and young people can be groomed online by people that they know such as a professional, a friend or a family member as well as strangers.
Groomers gain the trust of their victims through a variety of means:
- Hiding their real identity online and pretending to be of a different sex or age.
- Sharing interests with their victims, often researching things that their victim is interested in to forge a connection.
- Giving advice and showing understanding.
- Paying lots of compliments and giving lots of attention.
- Sending or buying gifts.
- Taking them on trips once they have met in person.
Groomers can create trust in different ways by providing what they perceive their victim needs. It could be taking on a relationship role in a romantic sense or becoming a father figure. Trust could also be built in a mentor or ‘peer’ role or by someone who claims to be or is an authority figure.
A groomer then typically tries to isolate the victim from their friends or family, making them feel a sense of dependency on them. This gives the groomer power and control over the situation. Groomers often introduce secrets or blackmail the child so that they feel guilty or ashamed. This is how groomers reduce their risk of being caught.
Children’s feelings regarding online groomers are often complex. They often do not realise that they have been groomed and will struggle to believe it. They may continue to feel love, loyalty and even admiration for their groomer.
Who is at risk of online abuse?
Any child of any age and either sex is at risk of online abuse. Indeed, online abuse is not solely limited to child victims either. Online abuse can be experienced by someone that the victim knows or a stranger. It can also be a one-off occasion or could be a pattern of abuse lasting much longer. As such, identifying who is most at risk of online abuse is often fraught with difficulty.
Generally, children are more at risk of online abuse than adults. This is not only related to their immaturity and inexperience in navigating the online world but also because they often spend more time online than many adults.
Some children are also more at risk of online abuse than others as they have other vulnerabilities. Online abusers including groomers exploit a child’s vulnerabilities to increase the likelihood that the child will stay quiet about the abuse.
Children who are in care, are neglected by their caregivers or who have a variety of carers are often more at risk of online abuse due to their living situation and previous adversity. Likewise, those with disabilities, including learning disabilities, are much more likely to be a victim of online abuse.
– Black people and those of certain other minorities in the UK are much more likely to be a victim of or exposed to online abuse than white and Asian people. The ONS reported that Asian or British Asian children were significantly less likely to have experienced online abuse (6%) compared to White children (21%), Black children (18%) and Mixed Ethnic group children (19%).
– Children and young people are more likely to be targeted or exposed to online abuse. This relationship could be explained in part due to the increased amount of time that they spend online.
– There is little data to support a difference in the likelihood of risk of online abuse based on a person’s gender. The ONS report for the year ending March 2020 stated that there was no significant difference in the proportion of girls and boys who had experienced online bullying. However, gender plays a big part in how people experience online abuse and therefore caution must be taken in looking at this statistic. There is also no information regarding abuse experience for those who identify as transgender.
- People with disabilities.
– Those with disabilities are more likely to witness or experience abuse than those without disabilities. The ONS report shows that the prevalence of online bullying was significantly higher for children who have a disability or long-term illness (26%) than those without (18%).
Can online abuse be avoided?
Unfortunately, not all online abuse can be avoided. Social media platforms make it very easy for people to communicate quickly online with friends, family and others. Comments and conversations can therefore be targeted and broadcast to others, even to the extent of going viral.
What is more, there will always be those out there that seek to cause harm to others online or that see nothing wrong in their abusive behaviours on the internet.
Many abusers also hide behind their online personas, willingly saying things that they would not dare to say if the conversation were face to face. This means that online abuse will likely always be around.
However, there are things that you can do to help prevent or safeguard against abuse. Being proactive regarding potential online abuse is key.
Here are some steps you can take to help safeguard against online abuse.
- Ensure passwords are protected and not shared.
– By making your accounts as secure as possible, you reduce the risk of someone stealing your identity online and/or masquerading as you.
- Talk to children about online safety.
– Children should be informed from a young age about staying safe on the internet. This will help to protect them as they navigate through the pitfalls of the internet. It will also give them the confidence to address any online abuse that they may encounter.
– Schools also have a role to play in delivering internet safety education. The NSPCC also offer free assemblies for primary schools that can also be accessed online. This is called Speak Out Stay Safe and can help children to feel empowered to report online abuse.
– The NSPCC’s InCtrl service is designed to help keep children between 9 and 13 years old safe online and to prevent technology-assisted child sexual abuse (TA-CSA). This programme helps young people to build resilience in the digital world and helps them recognise potential risks online as well as strengthen their support network. They also encourage parents and carers to work with them to help protect their children from technology-assisted child sexual abuse.
- Be informed about the latest sites.
– Parents and carers should try to keep well-informed and up to date with the latest apps, sites and online trends. If they do not use the apps or sites themselves, they should spend some time learning how to use them.
– There is a plethora of advice out there for parents regarding social media safety. Parents should read parental guides to platforms that their children are using, including Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube.
- Talk to children about healthy relationships and boundaries.
– It is important that children know what to expect from healthy, trusting relationships, both offline and online. The NSPCC has information about the PANTS rule. This helps children to understand body autonomy and that they should inform someone if they feel upset, worried or uncomfortable. PANTS stands for: Privates being private, Always remembering your body belongs to you, No means no, Talk about secrets that upset you, Speak up – someone can help.
- Encourage transparency with devices and online activity.
– Keep gaming devices, computers and laptops with webcams in shared, family spaces. This helps parents to monitor their child’s online activity and thus reduces the risk of online abuse.
- Assess and manage children’s online activity.
– Keep up to date with how to support children’s online wellbeing by managing the content that children see and are exposed to.
– Ensure that any interactions that children have are appropriate.
– Manage how long a child is online, ensuring a fair balance with other activities.
– Insist your child takes breaks from online life.
– Use apps to monitor online use and incorporate wellbeing settings.
Reporting online abuse
Reporting online abuse is often difficult, especially for children and young people. Those who are or have been abused are often reticent to report their abuse due to blackmail, shame or fear of the repercussions.
Equally, as mentioned, many do not recognise that they are being abused, particularly in the case of grooming or emotional abuse. Indeed, children and young people often develop attachments to their abusers which prevents them from reporting things that they otherwise would have.
You can report online abuse in a variety of ways:
- Contact the police – You can report abuse by contacting the police using the non-emergency number 101 (unless there is an immediate risk or threat, in which case you should call 999).
- Contact your local children’s services child protection team. You can also contact the safeguarding lead at the child’s school.
- Contact Childline. Childline has a telephone number as well as an online chat facility where a child can talk 1:1 with a counsellor. They also offer the option of sending an email or chatting on one of their online forums.
- For cyberbullying, contact Bullying UK via their helpline.
- To report grooming, you can make a CEOP report online.
For images of abuse, it is important to remember that whilst you want to report it to the right people, you must not share the images with anyone directly as this is illegal. This also means that you should not comment on a post or react to it if the platform has that feature. When reporting the images or abuse, you must inform the authorities which site the abuse appeared on.
If you want to report a sexual image or video that has been shared of you or someone you are supporting online, you can use the Internet Watch Foundation’s Report Remove tool. They will help you to have the image removed.
What support is available?
Unfortunately, many people have experienced online abuse. Thankfully there is a range of support available whether you are a child who has experienced online abuse, an adult who is supporting a child who has been abused or groomed online, or an adult who has experienced online abuse.
For children, they can access support through Childline and the NSPCC. The NSPCC also offer their Hear and Now approach which provides therapeutic support for those who have been affected by sexual abuse, including online sexual abuse. Another of the NSPCC’s services is Letting the Future In, which supports children to recover from their abuse. There are also apps such as the Headspace kids app, designed to aid relaxation and help mental wellbeing, and the JoyPoP app, which is designed to help children learn to find resilience in dealing with the ups and downs that they may experience as they experience online abuse. Children must have mental health support if they have opened up about having experienced online abuse.
For parents, Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE) offers support to parents whose children have been exploited. Mosac offers support services for parents and carers of children who have been sexually abused.