Working with children and young people who have displayed harmful sexual behaviour: evidence based guidance for professionals working with children and young people

Guidance to support professionals who work with children and young people to identify, prevent and mitigate harm caused by children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour

Harmful sexual behaviour in online contexts

Smartphones and the online world are an increasingly important part of young people’s lives, allowing them to share their experiences and connect with friends. Adults often think about online and offline experiences separately, but for most young people growing up in a digital world, online and offline experiences are blended and inseparable, with online dimensions often augmenting day to day offline experience.

Increasingly these technologies also play a part in how young people explore and express their developing sense of sexuality. It is natural that as they grow up they might behave sexually online as well. This behaviour can be healthy and consensual, but it can include natural curiosity that can expose them to online content or experiences for which they are not developmentally ready

It can also involve behaviour that may be exploitative of others. A common theme of online harm involves a young person being asked or coerced into sexually inappropriate actions by peers. Because of this, it is essential for professionals to know the differences between age-appropriate healthy online sexual behaviours and harmful behaviours.

It is therefore important that adults who work with young people can help them develop resilience, awareness and an understanding of risks online. Staff and professionals working with children and young people in all settings also need to be able to appropriately identify sexualised behaviours that are harmful to self or others, so that responses are proportionate and effective in keeping all young people involved safe.

Harmful sexual behaviour in online contexts has been defined as:

One or more children engaging in sexual discussions or acts – using the internet and/or any image-creating/sharing or communication device – which is considered inappropriate and/or harmful given their age or stage of development. This behaviour falls on a continuum of severity from the use of pornography to online child sexual abuse

Hollis & Belton, 2017.

Examples can include, but are not limited to:

  • Using force, pressure or coercion with someone under the age of 18 to share sexual imagery of themselves
  • Forcing somebody to do something by threatening to publish sexual material about them
  • Non-consensual sharing of self-produced sexual images (sometimes described as ‘revenge porn’ or ‘image based sexual abuse’)
  • Accessing adult porn sites or adult content at an inappropriate age or stage of development
  • Exposing another child or young person to adult online pornography
  • Viewing sexual images of children and young people under 18
  • Inciting or coercing sexual activity. This can include online grooming and sexual exploitation of peers and younger children (and potentially adults in some circumstances)
  • Sexual harassment and bullying through online messaging or social media
  • Use of smartphones and other technology for voyeurism such as upskirting
  • Encouraging someone under the age of 18 to be involved with sexual content for commercial purposes
  • Sexual abuse and exploitation online.

It is important to understand the context of these kinds of behaviours. Young people spend a lot of time online – on social media, gaming, and other apps and websites. During teenage years the desire for thrills and excitement often peaks. Adolescent brains produce more dopamine (a hormone that makes us feel good) and their brains are more sensitive to it. This can lead them to seeking risks and rewards to achieve more of this feeling. People often feel less inhibited online and make hasty choices.

It is also important to recognise that children can be exploited sexually online by adults as well as young people. Some young people who display harmful sexual behaviour may also have experienced online harm themselves.



Back to top