Online issues and worries: illegal and offensive content
There are lots of great things on the internet, but there are also risks associated with being online.
What is illegal and offensive content?
There are lots of great things on the internet, life wouldn't be the same without it for most of us, but there is also a darker side to the web, something you might feel is a bit dodgy. Sometimes you can come across these things accidentally while searching for something else, so it's important that you know what to do if this happens to you.
It can be difficult to explain what's offensive because it depends on who is looking at it and what they find offensive. But it basically means something that can offend, upset, scare, or worry the person looking at it.
This is content that the law says is not allowed and anyone who takes part in posting or viewing it can get in trouble with the police. It can be difficult to know whether something online is illegal as there are many different laws. But don't worry, you aren't expected to know what all these laws are. If you suspect something is against the law, close the page and report it and let someone else decide if it's illegal or not.
Examples of offensive or illegal content can include:
- videos or images of war
- online abuse
- sexual images or videos of someone under 18 (see our section on ‘Sharing nudes’)
- encouraging terrorist acts (see our section on ‘Radicalisation and extremism’)
- encouraging crime or violence
- videos or images of violence
- videos or images of cruelty
- online hate
- online sexual harassment
- online bullying
- phishing and scams
- fake news and misinformation
Where does this happen?
It can happen on any platform that is connected to the internet, such as:
- social media
- messaging (for example Snapchat and WhatsApp)
- gaming sites
- file-sharing services
- the dark web (parts of the internet that are not visible to standard search engines and require specific software to access)
You might come across something accidentally while searching for something else, or you might have searched for something specific. Be aware, searching for illegal content online is against the law and you could get into trouble for it.
What to do if you see something inappropriate or illegal
Seeing this kind of content can make someone upset, worried, or scared, and it's okay and normal for you to feel like this sometimes. But keeping it to yourself can make these feelings even worse. Talking about it with someone you trust can help to take away some of that worry. Explain to them what you've seen and how you're feeling about it. If you're not sure how to start a conversation with someone, here are some tips. If you feel that you can't talk to anybody, you could call an anonymous helpline like Meic which is there to listen and help.
Shut it down
Close the page down straight away (if you want to report the page, copy the web address first) and go and find someone you can talk to about what you've just seen.
If something pops up that you don't like, or you get warnings before clicking on something, then it's best not to press that button. You don't know what you are opening yourself up to. Curiosity might make you want to click but stay safe and don't. As well as seeing something that could upset you, you're also putting yourself at risk of a virus.
Reporting will flag it up as something that needs to be checked, and if it breaks guidelines or is illegal, it can be taken down. See more in our ‘How to report something offensive or illegal’ section below.
The best way to reduce the risk of seeing offensive or illegal things online is to have parental controls or content restrictions in place at home and on individual devices. You might not like the idea of this and think that adults use this to control what you see. The intention isn't to keep the fun stuff away from you but to protect you and stop you from seeing things that could upset you. If your parents/carers need help, there are some helpful guides on Hwb:
- App guides for parents and carers which include safety tips for a ranges of popular apps
- A parents and carers guide to Google SafeSearch and YouTube Safety Mode
There are age restrictions on some apps and platforms for a reason, as you are more likely to see things that are not appropriate for your age. But we know that lots of young people do have accounts on platforms that they are not meant to be using. Make sure that you set your privacy settings to high. Know the people you are talking to. Tell someone or report anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Check out the ‘In the know’ section with guides to the most popular apps, including age ratings, risks and things to do to keep safe.
If someone you know is sending you offensive content, ask them to stop. If you feel that you can't, or that you're a member of a group that shares this kind of stuff, then block, unfollow, unlike.
Try not to pass on anything sent to you that could be thought of as offensive or illegal. You could upset someone or get into trouble for sharing it.
Advice from other young people aged 12-16
If you see something online that has upset or worried you, talk to an adult about what you have seen and discuss why it’s made you feel that way.
Report it to the site as many times as possible, to make it more likely to get flagged and removed, and click ‘do not recommend similar things’.
Tell someone trustworthy, no matter how worried you are about their reaction. It doesn't have to be your parents if you don't want it to be, but make sure you trust them.
How to report something offensive or illegal
Most sites will have a way of reporting content, especially on social media apps (check our other online safety sections for information). But there are places to report certain things that you see online.
- if you think that someone is in immediate harm, then call 999 to report it to the police
- you can report threats, impersonation, bullying or harassment, self-harm or suicide, online abuse, violence, unwanted sexual advances and pornographic content to Report Harmful Content. You can also find links to report on different apps and platforms
- if you see child online sexual abuse images then report to the Internet Watch Foundation.
- if you're worried about the way someone has been talking to you online, then report to CEOP
- hate crime towards someone because of their race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or other reasons can be reported to True Vision
- if you find anything online promoting terrorism and extremism, report to the GOV.UK website
- if you think a website is trying to scam you report it to the National Cyber Security Centre
- if you've been scammed and lost money or been hacked, then report it to Action Fraud
Where to go for help
If you’re looking for help or information, but you’re worried about starting a conversation with an adult, here are some tips.
- Childnet – internet safety advice for children and young people
- CEOP Education - advice for 11-18 years on the internet and relationships
- Meic – free and confidential helpline for children and young people in Wales with advisers to help you find the support you need. Call 080880 23456, text 84001 or chat online
- Childline – free, private and confidential helpline for children and young people in the UK where you can talk about anything. Call 0800 1111
- YoungMinds – mental health support for young people
BBC Own It
Watch this short video for tips on what to do if you see something upsetting online.