What is online abuse?

Online abuse covers a wide range of behaviours and technologies. Abuse happens when someone acts in a way that causes harm and distress to others. It is often obvious that someone is behaving in an abusive way but it’s not always clear where the boundary falls between expressing a point of view and being abusive.


This website gives you more information so you can identify abusive behaviour online and do something about it. 


People have the right to expect the same standards of behaviour online as those expected in face-to-face interactions. If something is illegal, unfair or unacceptable face-to-face, then it doesn’t make it acceptable to behave that way online.

You do not have to accept or put up with abuse.


You can stop it:

Report, Complain, Campaign!

What is harassment and abuse?

Harassment is behaviour targeted against someone with the intension of causing ‘alarm or distress' and which may also put people ‘in fear of violence'. The behaviour needs to be ‘oppressive and unreasonable’ and can include ‘repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person’.


Harassment can include behaviour by two or more people against an individual or by one person against more than one person. There is an understanding that groups of people can be subject to ‘collective harassment’, for example where members of a family, a specific community centre, or a social group are targeted.


Abuse can be a single or a repeated act. It is behaviour that is physically, emotionally, sexually or psychologically damaging for someone. Abuse can be a single act that has damaging consequences for someone or a series of large or small acts which cumulatively impact adversely on the individual.


To find out more, visit the Crown Prosecution Service website.

How are people abusive online?

The sort of behaviour that counts as online harassment or abuse includes: 


  • trolling

  • trying to damage your reputation by making false comments

  • accusing you of things you haven’t done

  • tricking other people into threatening you

  • stealing your identity

  • setting up profiles in your name

  • electronic sabotage

  • publishing personal information about you, sometimes called doxxing (including sex videos and photos, which is sometimes called 'revenge porn')

  • cyber-stalking

  • encouraging other people to be abusive or violent towards groups of people.


What the law says

Taking action


There are many websites that give information about online abuse, for example:

BBC WebWise

Safer Internet Centre

Domestic violence

Social media and new technologies can be used as tools by perpetrators of domestic violence. Some women and LGBT people experiencing domestic violence offline are also abused, harassed and stalked online by their partners or ex-partners.


In a study of 307 survivors of domestic violence, 45% reported that they had experienced abuse online during their relationship, including through social networking sites or email. ('Women’s Aid conference links online abuse to off-line violence against women’, September 2013)


This site provides further information about revenge porn and stalking – including your rights, how to report it, and support available.


If you are experiencing domestic violence you can get immediate information and support here. In an emergency, always call the police by phoning 999:


  • 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone helpline 0808 2000 247. The Helpline can give support, help and information over the telephone and is staffed 24 hours a day by fully trained female helpline support workers and volunteers. All calls are completely confidential. Translation facilities for callers whose first language is not English, and a service for callers who are deaf or hard of hearing are available.

  • Refuge website

  • Women’s Aid website

  • Karma Nirvana

  • Imkaan

  • Broken Rainbow (for LGBT people)

  • Men's Advice Line



The internet is often used for people to meet others for sex and relationships. There is a wide range of internet sites and mobile apps to facilitate this.


If someone is abusive to you on a dating site, contact the provider of the app to report the abuse, as it may contravene the terms and conditions of use. Gather as much information as you can about the abusive user, for example by taking a screenshot of their profile. The most well-known sites have well-established advice online on how to report any abusive behaviour by other users. Smaller apps may not have such useful advice and it may be helpful to talk to an expert organisation for advice or directly to the police.


Some people may also experience a link between online abuse and face-to-face violence and abuse but feel less able to get help because they fear others knowing about how they’ve been having sex and who with. No one should experience or put up with violence or abuse, online or face-to-face, because they are worried about disclosing their sexual orientation or sexual behaviour. If this is happening to you, talk it over in confidence with a specialist organisation who can give information, advice and advocacy to help make it stop.


There are many dating apps, so search the site of the one you use for help. Some of the well-known apps and websites (these are only a few, there are many) that have safety information and ‘report-it’ features are:


Tinder - for everyone

Match.com - for everyone

Grindr - for gay and bi men

Diva Date and Pink Sofa - for lesbian and bi women.


Useful independent organisations:

Stalking Helpline

Women's Aid


Revenge porn

It is unlawful to publish private sexual images of another identifiable person without their consent where the disclosure causes distress to the person in the image. This is sometimes called ‘revenge porn’ (Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015).


The law covers the sharing of images both online and offline, including sharing images on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp, via text message, email, on a website, apps or physical copies. The images can be photographs or films which show people engaged in sexual activity or depicted in a sexual way or with their genitals exposed, where what is shown would not usually be seen in public. Victims and others can report offences to the police to investigate. 


Content is often uploaded by ex-partners with an intention to shame or embarrass someone. The content is sometimes linked to the persons other online accounts, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or even work websites, along with personal information including addresses and telephone numbers. In this context, revenge porn can also be part of domestic abuse and stalking.


If you think you’ve been a victim of revenge porn, you are being threatened with it or there is a risk you might become a victim, contact the Revenge Porn Helpline for advice.


For more help and information, check out our Revenge Porn Guide.


Stalking involves a long term pattern of unwanted persistent pursuit and intrusive behaviour directed by one person to another that causes fear and distress in the victim (Meloy and Ghothard, 1995; Mullen and Pathé, 1994; Mullen et al., 2000; Zona, Sharma and Lane 1993). Stalkers can be partners or ex-partners, friends, work colleagues or people known only peripherally by the victim. Occasionally stalkers are complete strangers but it is more common for victims to know the stalker.


Anyone can become a victim of stalking. A report by the Network for Surviving Stalking (NSS), found that victims’ ages ranged from 10 to 73, they were male and female, were spread across the entire socio-economic spectrum and a large proportion (38%) were professionals. Home Office statistics (2011) state that over 18% of women and 9% of men will be victims of stalking – it is a much more common experience than many people realise.


Early intervention can help to make the stalking stop, so trust your gut feeling and get help if you think it’s happening to you.


Stalking Helpline

Network for Surviving Stalking 

Women's Aid

Isn’t it just free speech?

Being able to share information and views is a vital part of a free society and the law allows people the right to express honest opinions and publish material ‘on a matter of public interest’ (Defamation Act 2013), as long as a criminal threshold is not crossed. This means that what the person said isn’t a public order offence, a hate crime, a credible threat, a malicious communication or harassment.


Abuse is different to people expressing an honest opinion which might differ to those of other people. Abuse aims to hurt. Abusers often hide behind the idea that all they are doing is expressing an opinion or a belief, but if the content or manner of the communication is threatening or intends to cause distress, then it may be against the law.


One person’s right to expression is limited by a balance with another person’s right not to be threatened or abused. Therefore the right to free expression is balanced by the duty to behave responsibly and respect other people’s rights. No-one has the right to behave in a way that is abusive towards others. If someone aims to hurt, frighten, threaten or harm someone or a group of people, this is abuse.


For further information, see the Crown Prosecution Services' guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent by social media


Hurting, frightening, threatening or harming an individual or group of people online because of who they are is wrong. This is abuse.

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The word ‘online’ means any sort of communication via electronic technology. These electronic devices could be mobile phones (for example via calls, texts, applications or GPS facilities), PC/laptops, tablets, or any device that connects to the internet (for example a TV or gaming device). It includes all the ways in which people communicate through these devices too, such as social networking sites, dating and gaming sites, chat rooms, discussion forums, email, apps and websites.


More definitions

Case Study


Who: Loretta was in her 50s and had three grown-up children. She had recently started the process of transitioning and was slowly exploring her identity as the woman she knew herself to be. Her confidence and well-being was improving after years of silence and struggle about her gender identity.


The case: Loretta set up profiles on a number of trans-specific sites, including dating sites, defining her sexual orientation as bisexual. She became friendly with a heterosexual man on a dating site and, over a period of time, disclosed where she lived and other personal information. They began to chat over FaceTime and Skype and as time went on Loretta felt more confident to be sexual in front of the camera for him. Over time, the man became more demanding, threatening to publicise her trans identity and the photos and videos she had sent. Loretta attempted to end the contact and, at this point, a sexual video of her was posted on Facebook. Loretta was devastated by the rapid spread of the video. She stopped going out, and considered reversing her transitioning process.


Outcome: Loretta’s online friends contacted Facebook, which took down the video. The matter was passed to the police, who traced and charged the man. Trans and non-trans allies online began tweeting in Loretta’s defense and Loretta felt hugely supported by this solidarity. The online community put her in touch with a local trans community organisation and she began going to support group meetings, where she was able to develop friendships.


The posting of sexual photos or videos of adults online without the person’s consent is a crime. Contact the Revenge Porn Helpline.

Image by Michael Dresser www.fluffypinkmeringue.com