Online Sexual Harassment

Online sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour online. It can make a person feel threatened, exploited, coerced, humiliated, upset, sexualised or discriminated against. 

When cyberbullying is of a sexual nature, we call it online sexual harassment (OSH). Unfortunately, many young people are witnessing or experiencing this type of behaviour and aren’t getting the support they need.

This advice is for online sexual harassment that happens between children and young people who know each other, or know of each other, online. For advice about adults sexually harassing children online, read our advice page on online grooming.

Unwanted sexual behaviour online can:

  • Happen anywhere online (social media, games, messaging apps, public or private)
  • Use images, videos, posts, messages, pages, memes, emojis
  • Happen publicly, privately, or in both ways at the same time
  • Include a variety of different behaviours, possibly happening at the same time
  • Overlap with offline experiences of sexual harassment
  • Overlap with other forms of discrimination

What are young people experiencing online?

There are many ways in which young people experience unwanted sexual behaviour online from other people their own age. Some examples are shown below:

Key Questions:

  • Why does it happen? Open or Close

    Just like in the offline world, sexual harassment happens online too. Children may be copying harmful behaviour they see elsewhere, such as TV shows or other adults, whether they know they are doing this or not.

    It could have started as a joke between friends that went too far and became offensive.

    Content might be shared by those who want to be popular, by people who are ‘sticking up’ for a friend, or because of peer pressure.

    It might also be an effort to hurt others on purpose, e.g. to hurt another young person after a friendship or relationship break-down or to embarrass someone.

  • What age group can it happen to? Open or Close

    Online sexual harassment can happen to anyone of any age online. Our research with young people from 9-17 year olds shows how children of different ages are being affected.

    “Apparently, I sent a nude to a girl in my year, but this was from a fake account with a picture from the internet. This went on for at least 2 months. It made me feel depressed, lonely and angry.” – Gender unknown/undecided, 14 years, UK

    “This person was just being themselves and they had really short hair and they were a girl but they looked a little like a boy. Then all these people online ganged up and were being mean to her because she looked different. And that stopped her posting things and made her really upset.” Girl, 9-11, UK

    See the advice for pages for under 13s and over 13s for more information.

  • Why should I talk to my child about this? Open or Close

    Talking about sexual issues can be difficult and embarrassing for children, so they need you to give them the opportunities to tell you about anything that is worrying them or confusing them.

    Children may experience confusing or upsetting behaviour online, but not know what to do about it. If not challenged, they might see this behaviour as a normal part of being online.

    Children can hold back from asking for help from their parents or carers because they feel worried about getting in trouble, having their device taken away or letting their parents down. They need to know you want to support them.

  • How can I talk to my child about this? Open or Close

    Start with the positives. No need to lecture your child or sit down for a serious talk. Ask your child what they like doing online before approaching more sensitive topics.

    Choose a time your child is relaxed, with no distractions nearby such as technology or siblings. 

    Make sure your child knows they can come to you with any problem they have, and you will be there for them. If your conversation doesn’t go to plan, that’s okay – try again.

    See the advice for under 13s and over 13s for more information.

  • What can stop children reporting OSH? Open or Close

    Think about the ways your child currently communicates you about difficult topics. They may not recognise it as something serious enough to report or may be worried about getting in trouble or getting blamed.  Some children already face difficulties with language and communication, and may not yet know when and how to ask for help.

    It may be particularly difficult for young people to ask for help if this will reveal something about their online activities that they do not want to share, for example sexual preference or sexuality.

    We asked 13-17 year olds why young people might not want to report online sexual harassment. The top 5 results were:

    • #1 Too embarrassed (56%)
    • #2 My parents/carers would stop me using the internet (49%)
    • #3 Worried that they are to blame (48%)
    • #4 Worried about what would happen next (47%)
    • #5 Worried about being targeted by those involved (44%) 

    9-12 year olds told us:

    “My Mum, she would be like ‘oh, when I was your age I don’t know about all these stuff, how come you know about them now.” Girl 11-12 years

    “If she tells the head teacher, the head teacher might make a whole school assembly about her. It’s going to be even more embarrassing because people are just gonna keep calling her snitch and stuff.” Boy, 11-12 years

  • What are the signs my child is affected by this? Open or Close

    These signs can be similar to the signs of lots of worries, but it’s important to remember online sexual harassment could be a possible reason for them.

    These signs might include:

    • Not wanting to go to school or take part in activities that they usually enjoy.
    • Other signs of anxiety such as frequent complaints of a stomach ache etc.
    • Changes in how they use technology, such as turning off their screen quickly if they see you looking, or ignoring new messages.

    Children are often very good at hiding their concerns. Create as many natural opportunities for talking together as possible, as they may not open up the first time you ask if something is wrong. Let them know that they can talk to you about anything.

  • What should I do if my child experiences OSH? Open or Close

    For advice on how to support a child under 13, click here.

    For advice on how to support a child over 13, click here.

    For advice on how to report harmful or illegal content click here.

  • What should I do if my child carries out OSH? Open or Close

    For advice on how to support a child under 13, click here.

    For advice on how to support a child over 13, click here.