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Online risks and harms

Overview of online harms and risks
Woman on computer

Technology companies have known for decades how people turn their online platforms into weapons that generate abuse and cause significant real-world harm.

However, tangible action by industry has been slow and we need to find ways to talk about how to improve the overall ecosystem through global systemic changes. We do not want the weaponisation of deepfakes, the exploitation of algorithms, or a totally decentralised internet, without the ability to remediate harm. We also need to shape the evolving digital landscape in a way that does not create a ‘splinternet’ of diametrically opposed regulations or mandates.

Safe design standards are commonplace in the physical world: for automobiles, toys, consumer goods, pharmaceuticals and food safety. Harm prevention safeguards need to become standard in the online world.

Online risks and harms

Online risks and harms relate to both online content and activity – for example, harms can occur through:

Production of content icon Example: A person is physically and/or mentally harmed and the abuse is recorded or streamed in order to create online material.
Distribtion of content icon Example: An intimate image of a person is shared online without their consent. This can also cause significant distress to those who filmed or shared the content or to the person who consumes the content.
Consumption of content icon Example: A person’s beliefs, behaviour, emotions or mental health are negatively impacted as a result of dangerous, misleading or illegal content.
(Adapted from eSafety Commissioner online harms module)

Types of online harms

Online risks and harms are multi-layered and multi-dimensional and can occur as a result of access, exposure and interactions with others. Each type of online harm is not exclusive and an incident may involve multiple types of online harms. So, whilst these are categorised, there may be overlap across different types of harms.

Online harm that violates the right to personal safety

  • Threats of violence, intimidation and harassment
  • Incitement or facilitation of violence
  • Content that promotes and/or records violence
  • Child sexual exploitation and/or abuse material

Online activities or content that violate a person’s right to health and wellbeing

  • Threats of violence, intimidation and harassment
  • Eating disorder promotion
  • Graphic violence
  • Developmentally inappropriate activity or content

Online harms that violate dignity

  • Non-consensual sharing of intimate material or image-based abuse
  • Sexual extortion
  • Bullying, trolling, abuse, insults, rumours, social exclusion

Online harms involving discrimination

  • Individual identity attacks
  • Hate speech
  • Dehumanisation
  • Sexual harassment / aggression

Online activities or content that interfere with a person’s right to privacy

  • Doxing (i.e. activity or content that exposes a person’s identity, private and sensitive information, financial information etc. without their consent to exert control, intimidate, threaten or extort money)

Online harms involving deception and manipulation

  • Misinformation and disinformation
  • Scams, phishing and catfishing
  • Extremism
  • Deepfakes
  • Solicitation of children for sexual purposes (‘grooming’ or ‘enticement’)

Online harms that violate a person’s right to participation or free expression

  • Being prevented from safely engaging online
  • Misinformation and disinformation
(Source: Adapted from eSafety Commissioner online harms module)

The impact of these many types of online harms can be extremely serious, including social, financial, emotional, relational, psychological and physical impacts. For these reasons, the design of online products, services and platforms play a critical role in the ways in which these interactions occur and how ‘safe’ users are online.

The online environment both facilitates and amplifies human interactions – online products, services and platforms are the medium through which interactions occur and behaviours manifest.

According to the eSafety Commissioner’s recent research release, Australians’ negative online experiences 2022:

  • 75% of Australians had experienced something negative online in 2022, up from 58% in 2019
  • Just under one in three adults said their negative online experiences impacted their emotional and mental wellbeing, and about one in six said it impacted their physical health.

Increasingly, people want to be assured that they are safe in online environments. They also want greater autonomy over how they can interact in such environments.

Want to know more?

If you would like to know more about the concepts covered in this step, check out the eSafety webpages on the following types of online harms:

  • Cyber bullying – using the internet to be mean to a child or young person so they feel bad or upset.
  • Adult cyber abuse – sending, posting or sharing content that is harmful to the physical or mental health of someone who is 18 or older.
  • Image-based abuse – sharing, or threatening to share, an intimate image or video of a person without their consent.
  • Illegal and restricted online content – material that shows or encourages child sexual abuse, terrorism or other extreme violence.


© RMIT 2023
This article is from the free online

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