What is online risk?: Helpful clarity from Europe

New research from London-based EU Kids Online adds better definition and advances our collective global understanding of youth online risk and safety.

By Anne Collier

To survey 9-to-16-year-olds and their parents in 25 countries, UK-based EU Kids Online came up with questions and definitions that people of all ages and many cultures and languages could understand – bringing a useful sense of definition to youth advocates worldwide. Here are the online “risk factors” about which all the researchers (based throughout Europe) asked their young respondents:

* Have seen sexual images on websites in past 12 months – Norway highest at 34%, Denmark lowest at 4%
* Have been sent nasty or hurtful messages on the Internet in the past 12 months – Estonia highest at 14%, Italy and Portugal tied for lowest at 2%
* Have seen or received sexual messages on the Internet in the past 12 months (closest to US-dubbed “sexting”) – Romania highest at 22%, Italy lowest at 4%
* Have ever had contact on the internet with someone not met face-to-face before [not necessarily an adult] – Estonia and Sweden tied for highest at 54%, Cypress lowest at 14%
* Have ever gone on to meet anyone face-to-face that first met on the internet – Estonia highest at 25%, Turkey lowest at 3%
* Have come across one or more types of potentially harmful user-generated content in past 12 months – Czech Republic highest at 43%, France lowest at 14%
* Have experienced one or more types of misuse of personal data in past 12 months – Estonia highest at 18%, Finland lowest at 5% [The base for the above percentages is “all children who use the Internet.”]

Importantly, the EU Kids Online researchers do two things that clarify and advance our collective understanding of online youth risk: 1) they distinguish between risk and harm, a key distinction that the online-safety field and news media have not typically made to date (the title of the chart containing the risk factors above refers to “online risk factors shaping children’s probability of experiencing harm”), and 2) they ask kids who’d experienced those risks how upset they’d been afterwards. The levels of upset they asked the 25,000 9-to-16-year-olds about were “very,” “fairly,” or “a bit” upset.

How to talk with kids about online bullying

Interestingly, online bullying – which European young people say upsets them most and which US research has found to be the most common risk* on this side of the Atlantic – was the least-experienced one in EU Kids Online’s risk spectrum, with 6% of young people in all 25 countries saying they’d “been sent nasty or hurtful messages on the Internet in the past 12 months.” [This is a much more general definition of online bullying than that used by US researchers – willful and repeated harm using electronic devices (Cyberbullying Research Center – but the US public and news media tend to think in terms of general meanness online. It’s important to note, though that the EU researchers didn’t use the term “bullying” when they talked with respondents; they used the more specific terms “nasty or hurtful,” referencing all devices and in relation to “real life” mean behavior and relationships. I think scholars in the US would see this as a model approach to “cyberbullying” research.]

In the US, “cyberbullying affects between 15% and 17% of young people each year; harassment affects about 38%,” said Santa Ana, Calif.-based researcher Michele Ybarra, PhD, distinguishing between general meanness, or harassment, and bullying online, in a talk for the American Psychological Association this month. “Bullying [online and offline] is most commonly a face-to-face experience, but a minority of kids (8%) say they have experienced bullying in person, online and via text messages” (see my post about this).

The biggest cause of bullying

“What explains more or less bullying online?” is the question EU researchers address in their key findings (p. 9), answering that “in the majority of countries, having acted as a perpetrator by either bullying or sending sexual messages to other children is the factor that explains more encounters with bullying online.” This is confirmation for a finding published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics in 2007 which I’ve cited many times: aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor’s risk (e.g., see this). This is research grounding for my own oft-stated hypothesis that civil, respectful behavior online – the heart of digital citizenship – increases everybody’s safety, wellbeing, and efficacy in a networked world.**

Readers, there is a wealth of other information in this 69-page study, much of it shown in easy-to-read tables and charts, and EU Kids Online also just released another detailed report – “Patterns of risk and safety online: In-depth analyses from the EU Kids Online survey of 9-to-16-year-olds and their parents” – so please click to the studies themselves (both can be found at EUKidsOnline.net).

* From the youth-online-risk lit review for the 2009 report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard’s Berkman Center (my post as a member of the ISTTF links to the report).
** On why we need to work out the social norms of social media

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