What are the signs that a young person is being exploited, or is at risk from exploitation?

It can be difficult to separate the signs that someone is being sexually exploited from much normal teenage behaviour.  If you think a child or young person may be at risk from abuse, there are three key things to look out for, simply using ABC to spot the signs. These are changes in a child’s Appearance, Behaviour and Communication.

Indicators can include:


  • Changes in appearance, such as new clothes, more make-up, sudden weight loss, or weight gain

  • Consistently poor hygiene

  • Trying to hide marks or scars on their body, either self-harming or injuries inflicted by others

  • Having money, mobile phones, credit for mobile phones, SIM cards, jewellery, clothes or other items that they cannot or will not explain


  • Absence from school, dip in school attainment

  • Drug or alcohol misuse

  • Involvement in offending

  • Regularly coming home late or going missing overnight or longer

  • Not mixing with their usual friends

  • Developing a relationship with an older person or hanging out with older people

  • Association with gangs or use of gang language and terminology

  • Unusual relationships with taxi drivers or firms

  • Increased health (headaches, tiredness, digestive problems) or sexual health problems, possibly including repeat pregnancies and terminations or STIs

  • Secretive online activity


  • Being defensive about where they have been and what they were doing

  • Talking aggressively or using sexual language

  • Breakdown in relationship with trusted adults

  • Obsessive communication with one or two individuals

  • Being secretive or withdrawn

None of these signs definitively means that a child is being exploited. However, noticing changes like those above enables us to open a dialogue with a child. Telling them that you are concerned about their safety and asking them what is happening for them.  Many children tell us that they tried to disclose what was going on for them through behaviour and words but that nobody really understood.

Who is most at risk?

Sexual exploitation can happen to any young person – whatever their background, age, gender, race or sexuality or wherever they live. Research shows us that there are only 2 definitive and a further 1 likely factor that increases risk. These risk factors are:

  1. Disabled children
  2. Children who have been in the care system or are care leavers
  3. Children who have previous experience of sexual abuse

There are other patterns that can be seen in practice, that have not yet been evidenced but may be important indicators of additional vulnerability.

These include

  1. a history of any type of abuse or neglect

  2. recent bereavement or loss

  3. homelessness

  4. low self-esteem or self-confidence

  5. being a young carer

  6. living in a hostel, bed & breakfast accommodation or a foyer

  7. links to a gang through relatives, peers or intimate relationships

  8. living in a gang-affected neighbourhood

  9. living in a chaotic or dysfunctional household

  10. attending school with other young people who are sexually exploited

  11. lacking friends from the same age group.

However, although evidence suggests that certain life experiences may increase vulnerability to child sexual exploitation, no child or young person is immune from this form of abuse.

The charity Barnardo’s says that children most commonly identified as being sexually exploited are between the ages of 13 and 15, but younger victims are being targeted all the time, especially in relation to online exploitation.

What can you do if you suspect a child is being exploited?

  • If you are worried about the way a child or young person is behaving, or they are displaying some of the signs listed then call your local Children’s Social Care service or the police on 101.
  • If you are concerned about online illicit images of children or online exploitation you can contact the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).
  • Or you can call the NSPCC professionals helpline on 0808 800 5000 who can explore your concern and advise you on the best course of action. You can also email them at  help@nspcc.org.uk or link to this page to report a concern.