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Child exploitationDigital skills

Children’s and young people’s experiences of online harm: perspectives on policing

A group of young people browse their phones whilst sitting on a wall. Overlaid is text that reads "Online Harms Research Hub".

Dr Faith Gordon, author of the ongoing online harms research conducted by Catch22, was invited by the Metropolitan Police UK to present to over 220 police officers at a youth based professional conference online. The paper, entitled ‘Children’s and Young People’s Experiences of Online Harm: Perspectives on Policing’, was presented on 16 March 2021.

Kristina Andrulyte from The Social Switch Project also shared the developments made to the project’s frontline professionals’ training, aimed at anyone working directly with young people and needing to upskill in the understanding of social media and how it is used by children and young people.

“This was a conference for all officers working in youth roles within the Metropolitan Police Service. I really wanted to have Dr Gordon come along and speak because I think that it is so important that we have some data behind the thoughts and opinions and experiences we have with young people. I think that that the science behind the doing is really important also so that we are heading the right direction and doing the right things.”

– Keyur Patel, Conference Organiser – Youth Strategy, Engagement & Schools for Metropolitan Police Service

In the UK, discussions about introducing a new regulatory framework for online companies to target a range of illegal or harmful content affecting users, has been on the agenda for quite some time. The proposed Online Safety Bill would end “self-regulation” and place legal and practical responsibility on online companies.

As part of Catch22’s research, children and young people were asked what they thought about change and they collectively felt that an “independent” system would be better than the current arrangements, which clearly are not working.

COVID-19 context

More than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide (UNICEF, 2020). While children and young people have reported that online spaces are positive for educational purposes, for social interactions, hobbies and combatting loneliness during the lockdowns, they also reported the increase in negative experiences online.

This is backed up by the reported statistics in the UK. The Internet Watch Foundation (2020) reported that in the 11 weeks from 23 March 2020, its phoneline logged 44,809 reports of images compared with 29,698 the previous year. UK Home Office data illustrates 17,699 online child sex offences recorded by police in England and Wales between April and September 2020. Demonstrating an increase of 15,183 for same period in 2019.

Catch22 Online Harms Consultation

The Catch22 Online Harms Consultation was launched in June 2020 and received survey responses from 22 young people, 75 frontline professionals, from tech platforms and from Commissioners on the challenges of online harms.

The findings indicated that more than 70% of young people have seen content online that they’ve found concerning, referring to specific violent and explicit content and that only 40% of young people report online harms to the platforms they are using.

Children and young people’s voices

This study aimed to better understand children’s and young people’s experiences of online platforms, social media platforms, apps and gaming.

It also sought their opinions on online harms and the impact on their lives, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. It asked them to describe what ‘acceptable use’ is in online spaces and what they thought about law enforcement’s current role in addressing online harms and what changes are needed to make online spaces safer.

Focus groups and interviews were conducted with 42 children and young people aged 10-22 years. 15 qualitative interviews were conducted, with key stakeholders and professionals, including senior police, educators, safeguarding experts, youth workers, victim service providers, tech and gaming companies, regulators and representatives from the wider tech industry.

The study also involved analysis of quantitative data from service providers pre-pandemic and during the UK lockdowns on service provisions, referrals and engagement with police.

Young voices on the impact of harm online

Children and young people spoke of the prevalence of “bad” experiences:

“I don’t think I know one person who hasn’t had something bad go on online”
– Young Person, Focus Group

Online harms experienced by children and young people included unwanted content and unwanted contact:

“[watching a video of] someone who had committed suicide on [the platform]”
– Young Person, Focus Group

“There are predators on there”
– Young Person, Focus Group 8

“I feel like people text a lot of stuff saying, ‘kill yourself’”
– Young Person, Focus Group

Views on police responses

Young people generally felt that if harm was of a severe nature then “the police need to get involved” (Young Person, Focus Group). In focus groups, examples which would require police involvement included children and young people being threatened, groomed, being harassed and targeted.

Some young people felt that the police should be doing more to closely monitor social media platforms and other platforms:

“I think that police should look over what they’re doing, I think seeing how they can actually improve the safety, because there is quite a lot of stuff which you do see now and then which makes you think, this should not be on Instagram”
– Young Person, Focus Group

Children and young people suggested that more police should facilitate education initiatives focused on issues surrounding online harms:

“Maybe get more police in schools and colleges raising it. When I was in school, we had one policeman talk about being safe online, but he just went on about what you can and can’t do”
– Young Person, Focus Group

Young people described phone removals by the police in the course of investigating alleged crime. Young people raised a number of concerns about timescales in returning the phone and the types of information extracted and used.

Young people stressed the need for the police to fully explain to a young person what will be happening with their device and how long they will require it for:

“I think if you are going to talk to police, just make sure that if they are going to take someone’s phone, it’s absolutely necessary and that they communicate what they’ll be going on on the phone. So it’s not just, “we need your phone”. It’s, “we’ll only be going through your interactions with this person.”’
– Young Person, Focus Group

What did Policing Professionals say?

Police described how the volume of harmful material and the reported incidents of online harm, have increased substantially during the COVID-19 lockdowns:

“The volume of material that’s now out there is just, I think, beyond most people’s comprehension”

– Police Professional

Police felt that there were “knowledge gaps”, which training such as Catch22’s Social Switch Training were essential in addressing:

“I really feel like there was that knowledge gap for myself, and obviously … my colleagues as well”
– Police Professional

“Bespoke training … with the Social Switch … these kinds of partnerships are really important because they help us keep abreast of stuff that we maybe wouldn’t have the time to do learning and development-wise, just to see what’s happening, what’s changing in the world and how we can keep up with that”
– Police Professional

Frontline officers who work with communities on a daily basis felt that the design of the Social Switch Training, which has young people’s insight and input, was a unique and valuable approach:

“I know Social Switch, there’s a lot of conversations with young people as well to inform their training”
– Police Professional

During the Met conference discussions, in responding to young people’s concerns about timescales for returning their mobile phones, conference participants reported that the Met have set up an initiative to address these concerns.


Youth engagement should be at the heart of the approach of the police, when addressing all online harms and in working on prevention strategies and educational responses.

  • Reporting process: Children and young people wanted a swifter and simpler process for reporting online harms and they wanted to be given all of the information in an accessible manner.
  • Information sharing: Professionals interviewed described the need for information sharing between agencies, organisations and victims. They also stressed the need for tech companies to share information about their capabilities to address online harms.
  • Education and training: Children and young people wanted police to involve them in the design and delivery of better education programmes in schools on online safety. The police professionals described clear “gaps” in knowledge and those that had completed training with the Social Switch Programme advocated for widespread training of all police.
  • Ongoing research: The police and tech companies should be open to be involved in ongoing and new independent academic research, in order for new knowledge to be generated and an informed evidence-base to be developed. This would assist with evidence-based change.