There’s no simple explanation for who is affected by online abuse.

Different circumstances in a child’s life may combine to make them more at risk.

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Risk factors for online abuse

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Pre and early teens are a particularly vulnerable age for children online.

From 11-12 children start to explore and take risks online but they haven’t yet developed the skills to recognise danger or the resilience against things that might upset them.

Young people may be beginning to explore their sexuality too. They might find adult pornography online or start online relationships with people they do not know (Munro, 2011; Livingstone, 2012).

Teenagers are also more likely to experience cyberbullying than younger children (NSPCC, 2015).

Top 3 risks
A study in 2014 (Mascheroni and Cuman, 2014) found the most common online risks among children aged 9-16 were:

  • seeing sexual images
  • seeing content that promotes potentially harmful behaviour, such as pro-anorexia or self-harm sites
  • being bullied.


Boys and girls may differ in the types of risks they take online and the risks they are exposed to.

EUKids Online research (Livingstone et al, 2009) found that boys are more likely to:

  • look for offensive or violent pornography online, or be sent links to pornographic websites
  • meet someone offline who they have talked to online
  • give out personal information.

Girls are more likely to:

  • be upset by violent or offensive online pornographic content
  • chat online with people they don’t know
  • receive unwanted sexual comments
  • be asked for personal information.

Research also suggests that girls are more likely to experience ongoing cyberbullying than boys (Cross et al, 2009).

Around 1 in 8 young people have been bullied on social media

Explanation: Based on 1,388 in-home interviews with parents and children aged 5-15, conducted from April-June 2017. 

Around 1 in 8 8-11-year-olds (12%) and 1 in 5 12-15-year-olds (20%) who opted to answer the question said they had ever personally experienced some form of bullying. 1 in 8 12-15s said they had been bullied on social media (12%); this was lower for 8-11s (1%).

1 in 4 children have experienced something upsetting on a social networking site.

Explanation: 28% of children aged 11-16 (23% of children aged 11-12) who have a profile on a social networking site, had experienced something upsetting on it in the last year.

Based on a survey of 1,024 young people aged 11-16 across the UK who had a social networking profile.

Children experienced a wide range of upsetting things. The most common upsetting experience was ‘trolling’ (defined as ‘unkind comments or rumours circulated online’). However, a significant minority had received sexual messages, been encouraged to self-harm, or subjected to language which was violent or aggressive.

Who is affected by abuse

Bullying and cyberbullying

Nearly all children will be affected by bullying in some way. Find out more about who's at risk and why.

Find out more


Grooming can affect any child. However some children may be more at risk than others.

Find out more

Sexual abuse

Any child can be affected by sexual abuse. Find out what might make a child more at risk.

Find out more

Who is affected

Sexual exploitation can happen to any young person – whatever their background, age, gender, race or sexuality or wherever they live.

Find out more

Risk factors for all child abuse and neglect

There’s still a lot we don’t know about why abuse happens, but research has highlighted some similarities among children who have been abused or neglected. These similarities, or risk factors, help us identify children who may be at increased risk of abuse and neglect.

Some risk factors are common across all types of abuse and neglect. But they don’t mean that abuse will definitely happen. A child who doesn’t have any of these risk factors could be abused and a child with multiple risk factors may never experience abuse or neglect. But we do know that having one or more of these issues can increase the risk of harm.

Children who are at risk

Disabled children are over three times more likely to be abused or neglected than non-disabled children (Jones et al, 2012).

Some disabled children may not understand that what's happening to them is abuse and that it's wrong. Even if they do, they might not be able to ask for help. If a child is being abused by someone who looks after them or who they rely on to meet their needs it can be even harder for them to speak out or protect themselves.

Parents and professionals might mistake signs that a child is being abused or neglected as part of a child's impairment. And those working with disabled children may not be trained to spot the signs of abuse and neglect.

Children and families who feel isolated or without support due to a limited number of accessible services, may not know who to turn to to get help.

Parents who are abusive or neglectful might excuse their behaviour, blaming it on the difficulties of caring for a disabled child. Professionals focused on supporting parents to meet the needs relating to their child's disability may overlook parenting behaviours that are not good enough.

Professionals working in child protection might not have the specialised skills to accurately assess or understand a disabled child's needs, or to communicate with them properly.

Read our research report: 'We have the right to be safe': protecting disabled children from abuse.

Most children who are in care live safely but a small number do experience harm. There are a number of risk factors related to being in care which can make children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Children who have been abused or neglected in the past are more likely to experience further abuse than children who haven’t been abused or neglected (Finkelhor, Ormrod, and Turner, 2007). This is known as revictimisation.

Children who are being abused or neglected are also likely to be experiencing another form of abuse at the same time (Finkelhor, 2008). This is known as polyvictimisation.

There don’t appear to be links between ethnic groups and child abuse or neglect.

But children from black and mixed ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the care system and in the children in need statistics. Children from Asian backgrounds are under-represented.

This may be a result of a variety of issues including:

  • racial discrimination
  • language barriers
  • community and cultural norms and practices, such as female genital mutilation or harsh physical discipline
  • inadequate or inappropriate services
  • no action being taken for fear of upsetting cultural norms.

(Owen and Statham, 2009).

Parents, family and home

Problems with mental health, drugs or alcohol, domestic violence or learning disabilities can make it harder for parents to meet their child’s needs. Children living with parents who have one or more of these issues may be more at risk of abuse and neglect.

Witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse is a form of child abuse.

But children living in homes where there is domestic abuse are also likely to experience other abuse and neglect.

The impact of hearing or witnessing domestic violence can be very traumatic for a child and result in emotional or psychological abuse (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).

Research has also shown a link between domestic abuse and child physical abuse or child sexual abuse (Hester et al, 2007).

Not all parents who drink or take drugs harm their children, but children living with parents with alcohol or drug problems can be at more risk of harm and neglect.

Drug or alcohol problems can leave parents unable to care for their children or provide the practical and emotional support they need.

Being abused or neglected as a child doesn’t mean that someone will go on to harm others.

But a lot of the people who abuse or neglect children have experienced abuse themselves.

Because the effects of child abuse or neglect can last well into adulthood, some parents who were abused as children struggle to provide safe and appropriate care for their own children.

Just because a parent has learning disabilities or learning difficulties it doesn’t mean they can’t be a great mum or dad. But some parents can struggle to understand what they need to do to provide appropriate care for their child. In some cases, this can lead to a child being neglected.

However, research shows that helping parents to identify and understand their child’s needs can reduce the risk of a child being neglected (Cleaver, Unell, and Aldgate, 2011).

Most parents or carers with a mental health problem give their children the love, care and support they need to thrive. But when parents are ill themselves, they may struggle to look after their children the way they are able to when they are well. For families without strong support networks, this can result in children having to take on extra responsibilities, such as caring for other family members.

Research has also highlighted that some parental mental health problems (such as suicidal or self-harming behaviour, psychopathy or anxiety) could place children at risk of abuse or neglect. It is a common feature in serious child abuse cases.

Mental illness in the perinatal period, just before and just after birth, is known to interrupt healthy parent-child bonding, referred to as “attachment” (Jütte at al, 2014).

Families under pressure

All families come under pressure from time to time. But increased or continued stress can seriously affect how well a parent can look after their child.

Research shows that parents:

  • with a low income are more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with higher incomes
  • living in poorer neighbourhoods have high stress levels.

(Jütte at al, 2014).

Living in poverty

Children who grow up in poverty might:

  • live in a poorly maintained, unsafe or temporary home
  • have to move often due to repeat evictions
  • have disruptive neighbours.

Someone who is being abused may feel unable to leave their abusive partner and their home.

Housing worries on top of money worries can put a lot of stress on parents. This can stop them being able to provide the practical and emotional support that children need.

Poor housing and multiple moves are common features in serious child abuse cases.

Research has found that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have a greater chance of being on a child protection plan or being taken into care than children in the least deprived areas (Jütte at al, 2014).

There's also a link between physical discipline, stress and lower socio-economic groups.

Lack of support

Support from family, friends, neighbours or the wider community can give parents the resources and emotional support they need to help keep their child safe. But sometimes parents don't have this support. This might be because they live in an isolated area or because they have language difficulties or cultural differences.

Sometimes the services they need just aren’t available or they aren’t able to access them. This can put children at a higher risk of harm and research has found that there are clear links between social isolation and child abuse or neglect (Jütte at al, 2014).

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In the average primary school class, at least 2 children have suffered abuse or neglect. Donate now and help protect children today and prevent abuse from happening tomorrow.

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Keeping children safe

Helpful information, advice and tools on how to keep children safe from online abuse.
Keeping children safe from online abuse

Facts and statistics

Find out how many children have experienced online abuse or cyberbullying.
Facts and statistics on online abuse


  1. Cross, E.J., Richardson, B., Douglas, T. and Vonkaenel-Flatt, J. (2009) Virtual violence: protecting children from cyberbullying (PDF). London: Beatbullying.

  2. Finkelhor, D. (2008) Childhood victimization: violence, crime, and abuse in the lives of young people. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  3. Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K. and Turner, H.A. (2007) Re-victimization patterns in a national longitudinal sample of children and youth. Child abuse and neglect, 31(5): 479-502.

  4. Hester, M. et al. (2007) Making an impact: children and domestic violence: a reader. London: Jessica Kingsley.

  5. Jütte, S. et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.

  6. Livingstone, S. and Haddon, L. (2009) EU kids online: findings, methods, recommendations. London: London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

  7. Mascheroni, G. and Cuman, A. (2014) Net Children Go Mobile: final report: deliverables D6.4 and D5.2 (PDF). Milan: Educatt.

  8. Munro, E.R. (2011) The protection of children online: a brief scoping review to identify vulnerable groups (PDF). [London]: Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.