Online abuse Legislation, policy and practice

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own guidance for how professionals must respond to child abuse and protect children from harm, which includes online abuse.

Below is a summary of the government policy and guidance in each nation for responding to:

Online grooming and sexual exploitation

Legislation across the UK has struggled to keep up with the rapid developments in online technology. Old laws are being stretched to fit new online offending behaviour.

This means vital opportunities to stop online abuse are being missed.

More than 50,000 people backed our Flaw in the Law campaign petition calling for current gaps in legislation in England, Northern Ireland and Wales to be closed.

Thanks to the success of this campaign, David Cameron announced plans to introduce new legislation in 2015. This new law will make it an offence for an adult to knowingly send a sexual message to a child.

Below is a summary of legislation, policy and guidance in the 4 nations.

Legislation

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Includes the offence of sexual grooming. But action can only be taken by authorities where it can be proved an adult intended to meet a child. Increasingly, online abusers have no intention of meeting the child physically. They may, for example, persuade a child to perform sexual acts via a webcam.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Malicious Communications Act 1988

Makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety. But the intent to cause distress or anxiety can be difficult to prove because online groomers do the opposite to this. They may find out a child’s interests from their online profile and use these to send messages aiming to build a rapport with the child they’ve targeted. 

View the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Policy and guidance

#WePROTECT Children Online summit

At the #WePROTECT Children Online summit held in December 2014, the Government announced plans for a series of measures to tackle online child sexual abuse, including a new law making it illegal for an adult to send a sexual message to a child under 16 (Home Office, FCO and May, 2013.

Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming

government response to second report of the Home Affairs Committee

Published by the Home Affairs Committee in September 2013. Sets out the Government’s approach to tackling child sexual exploitation.  Includes reference to online child sexual exploitation and Government action to protect children online.

View Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming: government response to second report of the Home Affairs Committee

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Published by the Crown Prosecution Service in October 2013. These guidelines set out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with child sexual abuse cases and includes reference to online grooming in paragraph 11

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

View the Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Three year strategy 2012-2015 

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP’s strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation. 

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

View the Three year strategy 2012-2015

Legislation

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Includes the offence of sexual grooming. But action can only be taken by authorities where it can be proved an adult intended to meet a child. Increasingly, online abusers have no intention of meeting the child physically. They may, for example, persuade a child to perform sexual acts via a webcam.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Policy and guidance

Child Sexual Exploitation Definition and Guidance 

Published by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland in October 2014. Provides guidance for professionals on child sexual exploitation, including online child sexual exploitation. 

(Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, 2014)

View Child Sexual Exploitation Definition and Guidance

Department for Education Northern Ireland online guidance

The Department for Education Northern Ireland web page Internet and wifi lists a range of guidance on acceptable and safe use of the internet and includes information on Child protection: grooming and child photography.

Three year strategy 2012-2015 

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP’s strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation. 

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

View the Three year strategy 2012-2015

Legislation

Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Makes it an offence for an adult to knowingly send a sexual communication to a child. This means that in Scotland, successful prosecutions have been made that would not have been possible in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

View the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Policy and guidance

National Action Plan on Child Sexual Exploitation

Sets out Scottish Government actions to prevent child sexual exploitation and to support victims of child sexual abuse. Includes exploring options for practitioner training on online safety for children and young people.

(Scottish Government, 2014)

View the National Action Plan on Child Sexual Exploitation

Public Petitions Committee

1st report, 2014 (session 4): report on tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland

Published by the Scottish Parliament on 14 January 2014. Sets out recommendations for the actions the Scottish Government should take to tackle child sexual exploitation. 

(Scottish Parliament, 2014)

View the Public Petitions Committee: 1st report, 2014 (session 4): report on tackling child sexual exploitation in Scotland 

Guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

Includes guidance on the offence of communicating indecently with a child.

(Scottish Government, 2009)

View the Guidance on the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009

 

Three year strategy 2012-2015 

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP’s strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation. 

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

View the Three year strategy 2012-2015

Legislation

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Includes the offence of sexual grooming. But action can only be taken by authorities where it can be proved an adult intended to meet a child. Increasingly, online abusers have no intention of meeting the child physically. They may, for example, persuade a child to perform sexual acts via a webcam.

View the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Malicious Communications Act 1988

Makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety. But the intent to cause distress or anxiety can be difficult to prove because online groomers do the opposite to this. They may find out a child’s interests from their online profile and use these to send messages aiming to build a rapport with the child they’ve targeted. 

View the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Policy and guidance

#WePROTECT Children Online summit

At the #WePROTECT Children Online summit held in December 2014, the Government announced plans for a series of measures to tackle online child sexual abuse, including a new law making it illegal for an adult to send a sexual message to a child under 16 (Home Office, FCO and May, 2013.

Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Published by the Crown Prosecution Service in October 2013. These guidelines set out the approach that prosecutors should take when dealing with child sexual abuse cases and includes reference to online grooming in paragraph 11.

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

View the Guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse

Three year strategy 2012-2015 

Published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) in 2012. Sets out CEOP’s strategic objectives for tackling and preventing child sexual exploitation. 

(Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), 2012)

View the Three year strategy 2012-2015

Cyberbullying

Each of the UK's 4 nations has its own anti-bullying legislation. There is no specific law in the UK that makes cyberbullying illegal, but existing legislation to stop harassment or threatening behaviour can be applied to cases of cyberbullying. 

Legislation

Defamation Act 2013

Makes the website host responsible for removing defamatory material posted to a site.

View the Defamation Act 2013

Education Act 2011

Helps teachers tackle cyberbullying by allowing them to look for and delete inappropriate images or data from electronic devices such as mobile phones.

View the Education Act 2011

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Covers repeated bullying amounting to harassment.

View the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Section 154

Section 154 covers all forms of harassment, including written messages.

View the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Section 154

Malicious Communications Act 1988

Makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety. But the intent to cause distress or anxiety can be difficult to prove because online groomers do the opposite to this. They may find out a child’s interests from their online profile and use these to send messages aiming to build a rapport with the child they’ve targeted. 

View the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Policy and guidance

Advice for parents and carers on cyberbullying 

(Department for Education (DfE), 2014)

Published in November 2014 by the Department for Education (DfE). It provides advice and information about how to protect children from cyberbullying and how to tackle it if it happens.

View Advice for parents and carers on cyberbullying (PDF)

Cyberbullying and children and young people with SEN and disabilities

(Anti-bullying Alliance, 2013)

Guidance on the issues around cyberbullying for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

View Cyberbullying and children and young people with SEN and disabilities: guidance for teachers and other professionals (PDF) 

Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media 

These set out the approach prosecutors should take when dealing with cases involving criminal offences committed by sending a social media message.

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

View the Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media

Legislation

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997

Covers repeated bullying amounting to harassment.

View the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997

Malicious Communications Order (Northern Ireland) 1988

Makes it illegal to send an electronic message to someone with the intention of causing anxiety or distress to that person.

View the Malicious Communications Order (Northern Ireland) 1988

Policy and guidance

Department for Education Northern Ireland online guidance

The Department for Education Northern Ireland web page Internet and wifi lists a range of guidance on acceptable and safe use of the internet and includes information on Child protection: grooming and child photography.

Legislation

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Covers repeated bullying amounting to harassment.

View the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Breach of the Peace

This common law may be used to prosecute any behaviour that causes fear or distress, including harassment and bullying.

View Breach of the Peace

Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 

Section 50A may cover cyberbullying that is racially motivated.

View the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 (section 50A)

Policy and guidance

Respectme 

Respectme is Scotland’s anti-bullying service funded by the Scottish Government. It publishes guidance and resources for preventing and dealing with bullying.

View Respectme

Legislation

Defamation Act 2013

Makes the website host responsible for removing defamatory material posted to a site.

View the Defamation Act 2013

Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Section 127 makes it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. An online groomer may not be covered by this law because they may send messages that aim to build up trust with a child.

View Communications Act 2003 Section 127

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Covers repeated bullying amounting to harassment.

View the Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Section 154

Section 154 covers all forms of harassment, including written messages.

View the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 Section 154

Malicious Communications Act 1988

Makes it an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety. But the intent to cause distress or anxiety can be difficult to prove because online groomers do the opposite to this. They may find out a child’s interests from their online profile and use these to send messages aiming to build a rapport with the child they’ve targeted. 

View the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Policy and guidance

Respecting others

cyberbullying 

Published by the Welsh Government in 2011. Provides guidance for schools on how to prevent and respond to cyberbullying.

(Welsh Government, 2011)

View Respecting others: cyberbullying 

Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media 

These set out the approach prosecutors should take when dealing with cases involving criminal offences committed by sending a social media message.

(Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), 2013)

View the Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media

Sexting: legislation

Creating or sharing explicit images of a child is illegal, even if the person doing it is a child - find out more on our sexting page.

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each have their own legislation on the sharing of indecent images of children. 

Protection of Children Act 1978

Makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement with an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 16.

View Protection of Children Act 1978

Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Makes it an offence to possess indecent images of children.

View Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Lists sexual offences and their definitions. If an image being shared is of a sexual act, police must find out whether a sexual offence has been committed and act accordingly.

View Sexual Offences Act 2003

Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Makes it an offence to share private sexual photographs or films with the intent to cause distress.

View Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 article 3

Makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement with an indecent photograph or pseudo‐photograph of a child.

View the Protection of Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 article 3

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Lists sexual offences and their definitions. If an image being shared is of a sexual act, police must find out whether a sexual offence has been committed and act accordingly.

View Sexual Offences Act 2003

Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Makes it an offence to share private sexual photographs or films with the intent to cause distress.

View Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Makes it an offence to possess indecent images of children.

View Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Makes it an offence to share private sexual photographs or films with the intent to cause distress.

View Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 sections 52 and 52A

Section 52 makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 16. Section 52A makes it an offence to be in possession of an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 16.

View Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 section 52

View Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 section 52A

Protection of Children Act 1978

Makes it an offence to take, make, show, distribute, possess (with a view to distribute) or publish an advertisement with an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child under the age of 16.

View Protection of Children Act 1978

Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Makes it an offence to possess indecent images of children.

View Criminal Justice Act 1988 part XI

Sexual Offences Act 2003

Lists sexual offences and their definitions. If an image being shared is of a sexual act, police must find out whether a sexual offence has been committed and act accordingly.

View Sexual Offences Act 2003

Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Makes it an offence to share private sexual photographs or films with the intent to cause distress.

View Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 33

Sexting: guidance

Below is a summary of the guidance which advises schools and colleges on how to respond to issues round sexting.

It uses the term ‘youth produced sexual imagery’ to clarify that the guidance deals with sexual images or video content which is produced, shared by or in possession of young people under 18. It does not cover sexual messages which do not contain imagery, or the sharing of sexual imagery by adults.

For information on writing policies and procedures see our page on sexting: advice for professionals.

Sexting in schools and colleges

(UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS, 2016)

This guidance is for designated safeguarding leads and deputies, headteachers and senior leadership teams in schools and educational establishments in England.

It is non-statutory and should be read alongside statutory guidance Keeping children safe in education (Department for Education, 2016) and the non-statutory guidance Searching, screening and confiscation (Department for Education, 2014).

The advice clarifies the law: it is a criminal offence to possess, distribute, show and make indecent images of children.

However, it also points out that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) guidance recommends reports of children being involved in sexting should be dealt with in a proportionate way and that it might not be appropriate to carry out a full criminal investigation (College of Policing, 2016).

The guidance includes a step-by-step process for a school or college responding to a sexting incident.

  • Disclosure

    This could come from a young person or parent.
  • Initial review meeting with the safeguarding team

    At this stage the initial information should be reviewed and a decision made about whether referral is necessary or whether the incident can be dealt with in-house
  • Report incidents to the police or referring to social care, if necessary

    A referral should be made if:
    • there was adult involvement
    • there was any coercion or blackmail
    • the images were extreme or violent
    • the child involved had already been identified as vulnerable or was under 13
    • there is an immediate risk of harm.
  • Assess the risks

    Questions to ask include:
    • How was the image shared and when?
    • What is the impact on the child involved?
    • What is the background of the child involved?
    • Was the child coerced in any way?
  • Management in school

    Steps on how to respond to the incident include:
    • inform parents or carers - if this is not a risk
    • record incidents
    • search devices, identify and delete images
    • interview and talk to the young people involved
    • discipline young people involved if necessary
    • report online imagery and get it removed.

The guidance provides lots of supporting information and resources for schools and colleges including:

  • how and when to educate young people about sexting and associated risks
  • a list of resources that can be used as part of PSHE lessons and assemblies
  • questions teachers can ask to help decide on the best course of action in specific sexting incidents
  • what age considerations should be taken in to account
  • how to talk to parents or carers on the risks of sexting, what actions they need to take and a list of resources from other organisations
  • how to report sexting online
  • what the Ofsted inspection framework says about sexting
  • resources and case studies which can be used as part of teacher training sessions.

Download Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people (PDF)

Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery (‘sexting’) 

(College of Policing, 2016) 

The guidance aims to help police in England and Wales to respond to young people who are sexting and prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people.

The briefing has been developed in parallel with the UK Council for Child Internet Safety guidance Sexting in schools and colleges (UKCCIS, 2016). It is recommended that police should work with schools to share advice and information during investigations and help educate children about the risks of sexting.

Key steps for police dealing with a sexting incident are described.

Initial police action

    • When a report about sexting is made to the police, they should check the welfare of the young person/people taking part and find out whether there are any safeguarding issues or significant risks involved. This should include doing background checks.
      • If there are any safeguarding concerns, police should act on this immediately. This may involve a child protection referral and/or strategy meeting to plan how best to keep the child safe.
      • If the child already has a child protection plan or is in care, the police should make a referral to discuss how best to keep the child safe.
    • If there are no safeguarding concerns, and after talking to the child’s parents or carers and teachers, the police may decide to offer support to the child rather than follow criminal procedures.
    • Police should give advice to young people affected by sexting and their parents or carers, including:
      • how to stay safe
      • where to find further advice and support
      • how to avoid doing anything which is illegal in the future (such as keeping a copy of an image which has been sent to them).

Investigation

    • During the investigation, it is important to consider the needs of each child involved as well as the possible long-term effects the situation may have on them.
      • If there are any concerns about possible self-harm or suicidal thoughts, this must be dealt with appropriately and promptly.
    • In higher risk cases, it may be necessary to remove the device that was used to send or receive the images, but in lower risk cases this may not be necessary.
    • In higher risk cases the young people involved may need to be formally interviewed.
    • Parents/carers and the child should be kept informed about the next steps of the investigation and be given time to ask questions. They should also be given written information about where to find support, including how to get images removed from social media and messaging sites/apps.
    • Police should always fill in a Child contact with the police form to notify partners of the incident and make sure information is shared effectively.

Crime outcome code

    • All reports about sexting should be recorded as a crime. However, in January 2016 the Home Office launched outcome 21 (Home Office, 2016 ). This allows police to record that a crime has happened, but that it was not considered to be in the public interest to take formal criminal justice action. Crimes recorded under this code are unlikely to be disclosed on a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check in the future, although this cannot be guaranteed.
    • Outcome 21 may be a good solution in cases where a young person’s sexting was not abusive or persistent, and there is no evidence of exploitation, grooming, profit motive or malicious intent.
    • Decisions about using outcome 21 should be taken by a senior and/or experienced officer.
    • Once the outcome of the investigation has been decided, it should be clearly explained to the child, their parents or carers. The short- and long term implications should also be explained, for example whether the incident is likely to be included on a DBS certificate.

Dealing with images where outcome 21 is used

    • Anybody who has indecent images of a young person should delete them and prove that they have done so. It may be possible for schools to help with this by using their powers to seize, view and delete content.
    • If a device has been seized by police and it contains sexual images of a young person, it is unlikely that this can be returned to the owner because this could be interpreted as supplying an indecent image of a child. The final decision about this should be made by somebody at managerial level, such as a superintendent.
    • If images of a child have been shared beyond their control, police officers should add the images to the Child Abuse Image Database (CAID), which is used to prevent images from being re-circulated online.

Further information includes:

    • helplines
    • advice and information for parents
    • resources to support children and young people
    • how to remove images online and from apps
    • support services.

Download Police action in response to youth produced sexual imagery (‘sexting’) – briefing note (PDF)

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References

  1. Department for Education (DfE) (2014) Searching, screening and confiscation: advice for headteachers, school staff and governing bodies (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).

  2. Department for Education (DfE) (2016) Keeping children safe in education: statutory guidance for schools and colleges (PDF). London: Department for Education (DfE).  

  3. Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and May, T. (2013) Global war declared on online child sexual abuse. Press release, 8 December 2014.

  4. UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) (2016) Sexting in schools and colleges: responding to incidents and safeguarding young people (PDF). [London]: UKCCIS.