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Child abuse and Information Technology (ICT The Digital World)

If a professional becomes aware that a child is or may be being physically, sexually or emotionally abused via the Digital World they must immediately inform their manager and make a referral to children’s social care and the police. Where the abuse involved a specific child (or children) it may be necessary to initiate section 47 enquiries.

1. Overview

1.1 As technology develops, the internet and its range of content services can be accessed by children, young people and adults through various devices including mobile phones, tablets, text messaging and mobile camera Smart Phones as well as computers and game consoles. As a consequence the Internet has become a significant tool in exposing children to possible risks and dangers including the distribution of indecent/pseudo photographs and video clips of children and young people.

1.2 Internet chat rooms, social networking sites, gaming sites, instant messaging services, apps, discussion forums and bulletin boards can all be used as a means of contacting children with a view to grooming them for inappropriate or abusive relationships. Grooming is where a person establishes contact with the child and gains their trust and confidence in order to sexually abuse them. In some situations an adult may sometimes pose as a child in order to make initial contact – enticing the victim into abusive relationships or into making pornographic images for distribution or to perform sexual acts for a webcam. An indecent image of a child refers to any images (still or moving) of children apparently under 18 years of age, involved in sexual activity or posed to be sexually provocative.

1.3 Contacts made initially online are likely to be carried on via email, instant messaging services, mobile phone, social networking, gaming sites, apps and text messaging. There is a growing cause for concern about the exposure of children to inappropriate material via interactive communication technology e.g. cyber bullying, adult pornography, sites that promote self harm, suicide, eating disorders, online hate material, and extreme forms of obscene, violent and offensive material.

1.4 In considering responses to the above it is important to bear in mind the following:

  • A child may already have been/is being abused and the images distributed on the internet or by mobile telephone.
  • Adults or older children accessing the internet to view sexual images of children may also be involved in the direct abuse of children. It is therefore important to establish what contact such adults may have with children via their family, personal activities and employment.
  • Children who use ICT to bully/intimidate other children or who are accessing the internet to view sexual images of children/extreme pornographic images may have themselves, in certain circumstances, been subject to abuse.
  • There may be situations where the parent/carers of a child who has been abused may have failed to take adequate steps to ensure the child was supervised in their use of technology or where inadequate steps were taken to set up appropriate security. This may particularly be the case in situations where younger children have been abused.


2. Recognition and response

2.1 The impact on a child of ICT based sexual abuse is similar to that for all sexually abused children, see section entitled Sexual abuse. However it has an additional dimension of there being a visual record of the abuse.

2.2 ICT based sexual abuse of a child constitutes significant harm through sexual and emotional abuse, see Emotional abuse.

2.3 Significant harm is defined as a situation where a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, a degree of physical, sexual and/or emotional harm (through abuse or neglect) which is so harmful that there needs to be compulsory intervention by child protection agencies into the life of the child and their family.

2.4 If there is a concern about significant harm or the risk of significant harm to a child arising whilst online then a referral to children’s social care should be made using the SAFER Referral Form which can be downloaded from this website, and child protection procedures should be invoked. See Child protection responses.


3. Concern about particular children

3.1 Professionals should be aware that the child may not want to acknowledge their involvement or admit its abusive nature, and may resist efforts of protection. This should not be a deterrent and agencies will need to work together closely in order to continue to monitor and assess the nature and degree of any risk to the child.

3.2 The police should ensure that checks are made with regard to the subject adult and any other suspected adults, their contact with other children and other activities involving children. This is in order to identify the existence of organised and complex abuse or abuse of children through sexual exploitation, see sexually exploited children.

3.3 The Police can draw upon powers to seize communications materials only in specified circumstances where the level of evidence would support an application to do so.

3.4 Where it is suspected that a child under the age of 18 years is involved in perpetrating abuse through ICT a referral should be made in respect of this child. Thereafter the procedures for ‘Working with children and young people who sexually abuse’ are to be followed See Sexual Abuse by Children and Young People.


4. Sexting

4.1 There are a number of definitions of ‘sexting’ but it can be defined as a child (under the age of 18 years) taking an indecent image of themselves and sending it via mobile phone or some other form of technology. Children need to be aware that they may be breaking the law when taking and distributing ‘sexts’ but prosecution will usually only take place when it is considered to be in the public’s best interest.

4.2 The consequences of sexting can have long term and devastating effects for children. It can lead to isolation, depression, self harming, suicide, self esteem issues and can also leave children vulnerable to sexual exploitation by their peers or by offenders. Any incident that comes to light should be handled carefully. Children have also been known to share images of themselves engaging in sexual activities. These are in effect images of child sexual abuse even if they have been shared by others of the same age.

4.3 If images or videos of children engaged in sexual activity or in revealing poses are known to have been posted online the following procedure should be followed:

4.4 The police should be contacted immediately. The police will be in a position to make judgements about how matters are pursued in relation to offences and offenders. Sites or networks on which the images appear should be alerted to the existence of the illegal material. All evidence must be preserved until the Police are able to gather the evidence. The Police will advise the provider when images can be removed once the evidence has been captured. A SAFER Referral Form should be completed and submitted to the first contact teams in each local authority area for consideration of appropriate service interventions. Any child who has themselves posted potentially illegal material should be told to remove the items and warned that police action may follow if they do not. In some cases there may not be an obvious means of flagging or reporting the image e.g. when images shared through Blackberry messaging profile). Even in these circumstances the existence of the image should be notified to the network provider and police action may be necessary to ensure its removal or engage the co-operation of the child who has control of the image. The incident should be recorded through the organisation’s own procedures.


5. Concerns about an adult

5.1 Professionals may identify a concern through a relationship with a child or an adult, from visits to the family home, or from information shared by the victim’s friends or family.

5.2 A professional who has a concern should discuss this with their line manager and/or their agency’s nominated safeguarding officer.

5.3 A concern about an adult should be shared even where there is no evidence to support it. A referral should be made to the police about the adult. The police must consider the possibility that the individual might also be involved in the active abuse of children and their access to children should be established, including family and work settings, and a referral made to children’s services if appropriate.


6. Concerns about a colleague

6.1 Where an employee has either information or reason to suspect that a colleague is accessing indecent images of children, using technology to groom children or using technology in an illegal or inappropriate way the employee must follow Section 3.8.3 Allegations and concerns against staff, volunteers and foster carers. Where an employee does not feel confident in informing any available line manager, then the agency’s own whistle-blowing procedure should be used. To assist the police in any subsequent investigations, where possible, staff who are made aware of online abuse or inappropriate activity should try and preserve copies or records of offending material and obtain any relevant passwords to accounts or websites.


7. Secure Storage of Material

7.1 The professionals involved should reach an expedited agreement as to the arrangements for the secure storage and preservation of the material using the local authority’s own internal process.

7.2 In appropriate cases consideration should be given as to the need to seek judicial guidance on the handling of any images or other material to ensure no inadvertent commission of criminal offences.


8. Useful Guidance Pathway Tools, Contacts and Websites:

Extract from House of Commons Education Committee - Children First: The Child Protection System in England

“Professionals working in social care need to be better equipped to routinely address children's behaviour online and show children ways that they can protect themselves from unwanted contact as well as get help".

It argued that questions about internet use should form part of the core assessment process for social workers.  (Para 118)

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) works to protect children from online exploitation – can offer advice and support and can work with the Safeguarding Children Partnership's to develop training and education and raise awareness of the safe use of the internet.

Useful websites