In a recent study we explored the world of adolescents and their encounters with the digital environment. The findings shed light on the vulnerabilities young people face online, linking them to both personal characteristics and their digital activities. The authors of the study are Veronika Kalmus, Susana Batista, Signe Opermann, Natálie Terčová and Marie Jaroň Bedrošová. You can read the full text of their work as a chapter in the upcoming book Vulnerability in Childhood and Vulnerable Subjectivity: Interdisciplinary Comparative Perspective.
The study looked into data from a survey conducted in schools across six European countries as part of the ySKILLS project. The survey had two waves – the first from April to November 2021 (T1, 6,221 participants aged 12-17) and the second from February to July 2022 (T2, 5,890 participants, same and new, now one year older). The analysis focuses on 3,899 adolescents who took part in both waves, including those from Estonia (807), Finland (618), Germany (465), Italy (671), Poland (584), and Portugal (754). In this subset, 49% of T1 participants were female, with an average age of 14.34 years.
The authors conceptualized online vulnerability as the likelihood of maladaptation to online risks and experiencing harm (as a consequence of poor coping) and operationalizing this concept in terms of its manifestations - as unintentional encounters with online risks and experiencing harm.
Vulnerability generally means that a person is at risk to their well-being and is unable to protect themselves or be adequately protected by others. Vulnerability is not necessarily harmful - it is the likelihood of one or more types of harm occurring, which varies from person to person.
(Mackenzie, et al. 2014; Schweiger, 2019)
Who's More Vulnerable?
It turns out that non-binary youth, girls, and older adolescents tend to be more susceptible to negative thoughts and emotional experiences online. Financial difficulties also play a role, impacting the spaces where adolescents grow up and increasing exposure to online risks.
Time Spent Online Matters
The study found that the most vulnerable adolescents spend more time online than their peers. Contrary to common belief, this doesn't necessarily correlate with their overall digital skills.
Cyberhate: A Pervasive Issue
Cyberhate emerged as a prevalent risk, affecting almost half of the participants, especially in the most vulnerable group. Unlike what one might think, adolescents don't easily build resilience to cyberhate, and it significantly impacts their well-being. Coping strategies need to be developed not only for victims but also for bystanders affected by such online negativity.
Unwanted Sexting and Sexual Content
Unsolicited experiences like unwanted sexting and exposure to sexual content were also common, particularly among the most vulnerable group. While exploring one's sexuality online can be positive, unsolicited encounters can have detrimental effects on adolescents' well-being.
The Role of Digital Skills
The study found a connection between digital skills and online risk experiences. Adolescents with higher digital skills reported more frequent exposure to various online risks. However, having advanced digital skills doesn't necessarily protect vulnerable adolescents from repeated experiences of risks and harm.
The Bidirectional Relationship
The study confirmed a bidirectional relationship between subjective vulnerability and online risks. Vulnerable youth reported more online risks, leading to emotional harm, while being subjectively vulnerable increased the likelihood of encountering online risks.
Beyond Digital Skills
Contrary to popular belief, relying solely on digital skills is insufficient to support vulnerable adolescents in managing online risks. Factors such as social support and help from mental health professionals play a crucial role in enhancing online resilience and preventing harm among this group.
Reflecting on Safer Internet Day, it is clear that promoting a safe digital environment for adolescents requires a deep understanding of the complex relationship between subjective vulnerability, digital skills and online risks. The essence is not only to guide young people through the complexities of the online world, but also to provide them with the necessary support and resources to enable them to not only survive but thrive in this digital environment.
Kalmus, Veronika; Batista, Susana; Opermann, Signe; Tercova, Natalie; Jaron Bedrosova, Marie (2024). Child vulnerability in the digital world. In: Kutsar, Dagmar; Nahkur, Oliver; Beilmann, Mai (Eds), Vulnerability in Childhood and Vulnerable Subjectivity: Interdisciplinary Comparative Perspective. Springer [forthcoming].
Mackenzie, C., Rogers, W., & Dodds, S. (2014). Introduction: What is vulnerability, and why does it matter for moral theory? In C. Mackenzie, W. Rogers & S. Dodds (Eds.), Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy (pp. 1–29). Oxford University Press.