The latest EU Kids Online Survey in Italy investigates how children experience harmful content online, including feeling upset, uncomfortable or scared. Because the number of children who have felt bothered by something online has more than doubled since 2010,  Giovanna Mascheroni explores what action must be taken to educate and protect against such abuse. Giovanna is Lecturer in Sociology of Communication and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Università Cattolica, Milan, Italy. [Header image credit: J. Louwes_CC BY 2.0]

The new EU Kids Online survey in Italy (available in English or Italian) indicates that 9- to-17-year-olds are coming across worrying levels of hateful content on the internet. The survey comes at a time of growing public concern for hate speech and online hate. Indeed, the current electoral campaign, with right-wing political parties igniting hatred and anti-immigrant feelings, is part of the broader picture.

What we found

Overall, the number of children who have felt bothered (upset, uncomfortable or scared) by something they experienced on the internet has more than doubled, rising from 6% in both 2010 and to 13% in 2017.

The data indicate increasing exposure to inappropriate content in general, with a prevalence of violent and hateful content in particular. Fifty-one per cent of 11- to-17-year-olds have been exposed to at least one form of negative user-generated content (NUGC) in the past year, including:

  • Violent or gory images of people harming animals or other people (36%)
  • Hateful and racist content (33%)
  • Websites where people discuss ways of physically harming themselves (22%).

Moreover, nearly one in three 11- to-17-year-olds (31%) has seen hostile or degrading messages that attack an individual or a group of people discriminated against for their nationality, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Encounters with hate speech vary across age and gender, with older teenagers and girls being more likely to see hate speech online:

Most of the children who participated in the survey report feeling sad, angry and full of hatred for what they have seen. Younger children are also likely to express fear. However, 58% of those who have seen hate speech in the past year did nothing about it.

For some children, everyday experiences of cyberhate include cyberbullying. The number of children who have been bullied and/or cyberbullied has remained stable across the years (10%), but bullying is one the most harmful experiences for a child, with 79% of those who have been bullied feeling upset.

A larger proportion of children (19%) have witnessed someone else being bullied on the internet. Half of cyber bystanders tried to help the victim, while the rest reportedly did nothing about it. Younger children are less likely to intervene (67% did nothing), feel less concerned for the victim (67% said they were just ‘a little’ concerned), and do not feel they should intervene (when asked how much they felt that they should do something about it, 83% replied ‘a little’).

What can be done?

Cyberbullying, hate speech and hateful content can cause harm to children, especially to girls and younger children. Moreover, the presence of hateful content and messages can be detrimental for children’s engagement with the opportunities offered by the internet. For example, many young people refrain from participating in online discussions over social and political issues in order to avoid hate speech and aggression targeted at them.

The increase in cyberhate must be tackled at a number of levels. The Italian Ministry of Education (Ministero dell’Istruzione dell’Università e della Ricerca, Miur), that funded the 2017 EU Kids Online survey in Italy, is coordinating a number of efforts to promote a culture of respect among Italian students. More specifically, it is coordinating the implementation of Law 71/2017 for the prevention and fight against cyberbullying, with the first meeting of the inter-departmental board on Safer Internet Day 2018. The Minister of Education, Valeria Fedeli, has also launched a national plan for education to respect, accompanied by a social media campaign #Rispettaledifferenze (#Respectdifference).

More can be done by industry, given that only 2% of the Italian respondents said that they reported the problem online through the ‘report abuse’ button when they had a negative experience on the internet.

News media and politics can also contribute to reduce hate speech. Indeed, Parole Ostili, an association aimed at stopping hate speech and promoting responsible, non-hostile online communication, has now launched a campaign targeting politicians running for the 2018 national and regional elections. Many have already signed their manifesto and promised to refrain from hate speech in their campaign activities.

These data confirm the need for active mediation: it is important that parents discuss the online consequences of online actions and words with their children.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science