The 4 Cs of online safety | NSPCC Learning (2024)

By Maisy Watkins, Child Safety Online Project Officer

It's clear that a whole school and college approach is needed for online safety. The way schools and teachers use technology has changed hugely in the last few years, not least with the need for remote teaching during the pandemic. And so have the apps, platforms and games that pupils and students use.

As the technology continues to evolve, so too do the risks that children and young people face online. This can present a challenge for schools. But by using frameworks such as the 4 Cs of online safety, schools and teachers can make sure they have plans and processes that are able to adapt in this ever-changing landscape.

What are the online safety rules to follow?

In all four nations of the UK, online safety is part of the statutory safeguarding and child protection guidance for schools and colleges. This includes keeping children safe from harmful and inappropriate content online as well as being able to recognise concerns and take appropriate action.

In England, Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) is the statutory guidance for schools with the latest version in force from 1 September 2023.1

The 4 Cs of online safety

An important step in improving online safety at your school is identifying what the potential risks might be.

KCSIE groups online safety risks into four areas: content, contact, conduct and commerce (sometimes referred to as contract).2 These are known as the 4 Cs of online safety.


Content is anything posted online - it might be words or it could be images and video. Children and young people may see illegal, inappropriate or harmful content when online. This includes things like p*rnography, fake news, racism, misogyny, self-harm, suicide, anti-Semitism, radicalisation and extremism.


Contact is about the risk of harm young people may face when interacting with other users online. This includes things like peer-to-peer pressure or seeing inappropriate commercial advertising. Sometimes adults pose as children or young adults with the intention of grooming or exploiting a child or young person for sexual, criminal, financial or other purposes.


Conduct means the way people behave online. Some online behaviour can increase the likelihood, or even cause, harm - for example, online bullying. Conduct also includes things like sharing or receiving nudes and semi-nude images and viewing or sending p*rnography.


Commerce is about the risk from things like online gambling, inappropriate advertising, phishing or financial scams. Children and young people may be exposed to these risks directly. Schools should also consider how the risk from commerce applies to staff.

Three online safety tips to reduce online safety risk

The 4 Cs of online safety gives schools and colleges a framework to recognise and manage risk. Applying these when taking a whole-school approach to online safety will help empower schools to protect children and respond appropriately to concerns.

Make sure online safety policies are up to date to help pupils stay safe online

All schools should ensure that they have effective policies and procedures for online safety, and that staff understand their roles and responsibilities. Our online safety policy statement template will help you create an e-safety policy for staff, students and parents and carers to follow. This applies to all online platforms, including social media and online games.

Children and young people interact seamlessly across the online and offline worlds. Teaching should reflect this, with online safety embedded across the curriculum – not just part of IT and technology lessons. We have a range of resources to for schools to use in the classroom when talking to children about staying safe online.

> See e-safety guidance and resources for schools

Risk assess online platforms

The benefits of using online platforms are obvious - from enabling remote teaching to improved and real time communication with parents. It's important that any online platforms are properly risk assessed to keep staff, pupils and students safe online. And we can use part of the 4 Cs framework to help with this: applying the rules of content, conduct and contact.

> Read more about risk assessing online platforms in this blog article

Support parents and carers to have conversations

For your online safety policy and procedures to be effective, it's important to involve parents and carers. But online safety can also be a really daunting issue for them. You can help support parents and carers by reminding them that keeping their children safe online is as much about good communication as it is about technology. You may also like to share your online safety resources and lessons with them.

> See all our online safety resources


Department for Education (DfE) (2023) Keeping children safe in education 2023: statutory guidance for schools and colleges (PDF). [London]: DfE.
Livingstone, S. and Stoilova, M. (2021) The 4Cs: classifying online risk to children. CO:RE Short Report Series on Key Topics. Hamburg: Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI).

Online safety elearning

Our elearning training courses help schools and colleges keep children safe online. You can train anytime, anywhere and as many times as you like in one year. They are CPD-certified, provide a certificate of completion and learners have access to a range of further information and training. What’s more, income generated from the sale of our training courses is reinvested into the NSPCC to help us protect even more children.

Keeping children safe online

Make sure your staff and volunteers understand how to keep children safe. This elearning course covers topics including new and emerging online harms, sex and relationships online and bullying.

> Find out more about online safety elearning course

Sharing nudes and semi-nudes training

There are many reasons why young people may share nude or semi-nude images, videos or livestreams online. This elearning course looks at the issues and risks involved and the steps you need to take to effectively safeguard young people.

> See Sharing nudes and semi-nudes training course

About the author

Maisy Watkins is a Project Officer in the NSPCC's Child Safety Online Solutions Lab, helping adults understand the risks children may encounter when using the internet and how to safeguard them effectively. Previously, Maisy worked with children and young people who experienced or were at risk of sexual exploitation.

The 4 Cs of online safety | NSPCC Learning (2024)


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