Safer Internet Day: Better Internet for Kids? A Closer Look at Adolescents’ Experiences with Cyberhate and Online Disinformation

Today we celebrate the Safer Internet Day! It is an initiative to bring awareness to online safety, supported by the European Comission. As you might know from our research, it is a topic dear to our heart. That’s why we share our latest insights on the issues that adolescents face nowadays.

7 Feb 2023 Michaela Lebedíková Natálie Terčová

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Starting in 2004, Safer Internet Day is now being celebrated in more than 180 countries and territories. It is organized by the Insafe/INHOPE network of Safer Internet Centres in Europe, and supported by the European Commission. Each year, the topics revolve around “the safe and positive use of digital technology, especially among children and young people” (Safer Internet Day 2023).

This year, the initiative reflects on the new European strategy: Better internet for kids (BIK+) that was adopted in May 2022. The strategy aims to ensure that children and adolescents are protected, respected, and empowered online. These core values are very close to our hearts, as you may know from our research on the risks and opportunities online, the impact of technology on adolescents’ well-being, and the investigation of digital skills that might empower adolescents in their technology usage.

Thus, for this edition of Safer Internet Day, we are joining the conversation and reflecting on two topics closely related to better internet for kids: cyberhate and mis- and disinformation. The information presented in this article comes from two reports we published or co-authored in the past year: Cyberhate in Czech families: Adolescents’ experiences and their caregivers’ knowledge and Report on the role of critical information skills in recognizing mis- and disinformation.

The state of cyberhate among Czech adolescents

Cyberhate refers to hateful and biased contents that are expressed online and via information and communication technologies. Our findings are based on data from a representative sample of 3,087 Czech households collected in 2021. Our results show that cyberhate exposure is a common experience for adolescents. They can be exposed to cyberhate by seeing or hearing some online hateful content that does not necessarily attack them or their group. This experience was not frequent because it happened mostly once (12.4%) or a few times (24.4%). However, there are still some adolescents who reported being exposed to cyberhate daily (2.6%) or several times each day (1.4%).

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Intentional or unintentional…?

We asked adolescents exposed to cyberhate content whether they were exposed because they intentionally searched for it or unintentionally encountered it. Most of them were exposed unintentionally (81.6%). We also found that in comparison with girls and younger adolescents, boys and older adolescents reported intentionally searching for cyberhate more. Slightly more boys searched for cyberhate content – 20.6% of the boys exposed to it were exposed intentionally. In comparison, this was the case for only 16.4% of the exposed girls. Older adolescents (aged 15-16) were more likely to be exposed to cyberhate by searching for the content, whereas this was the case for only 13.0% of the youngest adolescents (aged 11-12).

What adolescents feel after exposure to cyberhate?

Even though not all cases of cyberhate exposure upset all adolescents, it can result in emotional harm in some instances. Therefore, we asked those adolescents exposed to cyberhate (regardless of whether their exposure was intentional and/or unintentional) whether they felt upset after this experience. Almost all of the exposed adolescents (90.1%) reported being at least a little upset by the cyberhate exposure. The majority of adolescents were a little upset (37.5%) or fairly upset (31.7%). Yet, there was one fifth (20.9%) of adolescents who were very upset by being exposed to cyberhate. The majority of them (52.1%) got over it immediately or felt upset only for a few minutes. However, there is a substantial group of adolescents who were upset for a few days or longer (17.7%). Their feelings did not depend on age but rather on gender. Girls reported feeling upset by cyberhate exposure more than boys.

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How many adolescents were victimized? And why?

When people are exposed to cyberhate, they do not have to be or feel targeted by the content because they do not possess the group identity that is targeted. But, when the cyberhate attacks their group or group characteristics, they can be and feel victimized by it, and such experience can have negative effects on their well-being. The majority of adolescents did not report victimisation due to any of the group identities, and our findings show that cyberhate victimisation concerns a much smaller group of adolescents than cyberhate exposure. During our research, 15.9% of adolescents were victimised by cyberhate in the past six months. We focused on three types of cybervictimization and you can see the percentages in the picture to the left. The gender differences were very small across all three victimisation categories. However, cyberhate victimization slightly increased with age for all three categories.

Online campaigns against hatred

We asked whether adolescents were exposed to online campaigns against hatred and aggression, which potentially present a positive influence and teach them about the negative consequences of hatred and aggression. Our results show that experience with such campaigns is common for adolescents. Exposure to online campaigns against hatred and aggression is quite common: 63.6% of them reported being exposed to such a campaign at least once during the past month. Most of them saw such campaigns a few times (27.2%) or they reported seeing it at least every month (13.1%). This percentage was slightly higher for girls (66.6%) than for boys (60.5%), and the exposure increased with age.

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European adolescents’ skills in recognizing mis- and dis- information

The potential danger in the online environment, however, lies not only in people and their behavior towards each other, but also in the information that appears on the internet and how we approach it. Online mis- and dis- information poses a threat to society and individuals, with young people being a group that can be particularly vulnerable to the potential negative consequences of exposure to such false information on the internet and social media. It is therefore important that young people are able to effectively evaluate the veracity of information and critically select appropriate sources. This can be achieved through specific digital skills, which we have decided to explore though a multi-method study about young people’s (12 to 15 years old) skills to cope with online mis- and dis- information in three countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Finland within the ySKILLS project.

Where do young people get their information from?

Research has shown that young people get their information about current events primarily from social networking sites. Secondarily, they use traditional news channels such as television and radio. Printed newspapers, digital newspapers, and news apps were the least popular among the young people in our sample in all three countries to stay up to date with current events. As for reliability, adolescents considered public news channels to be the most reliable, and when it came to popular social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram, they themselves reported that there is plenty of misinformation that they have to watch out for.

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How good are the adolescents' digital skills?

The young people involved in the study appeared to have a generally good awareness of the prevalence of misinformation and false information on the internet and social networking sites. They were also aware of the importance of critical information evaluation skills to prevent being misled. However, their knowledge of important credibility signals seemed to be rather superficial - they often assessed the credibility of messages based on visual cues such as graphic design or the amount of spelling errors in the text. They are also familiarising themselves with tracking, datafication, and commercialisation practices through a "learning by doing" method based on their daily experiences on social media and search platforms. As a result, their digital skills appear to be more functional than critical in this area, and they are insufficient for critical news consumption in today's complex digital media environment.

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The findings from this study suggest that existing news literacy and credibility evaluation interventions seem to be effective, as the participants generally reported correct credibility evaluations in the performance test and showed good knowledge relating to online news credibility during the focus groups. However, there is a need to pay attention to the acquisition of the skills that young people need to recognize less straightforward signals of trustworthiness.


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