teen online


Cyber-bullying has become a major concern for parents and teachers. Safe Social Media, a project of Rome-based InterMedia Consulting, has taken up the challenge of designing an educational programme to prevent violence in social communication. In this interview with MercatorNet, project manager Reynaldo Rivera talks about the research surrounding a trial run of the Safe Social Media programme amongst high school students in italy and Spain. A profile of the adolescent who is safest in the sometimes feral world of social networking emerges.

Are children and adolescents really as connected to social media as we tend to think? Are they on Facebook and similar sites for hours a day?

The great majority of children in Europe and other highly developed countries are connected to social media but the degree of involvement varies according to place, infrastructure, local culture and other factors, including what adults regard as too much. A Russian may consider it excessive if a child uses Facebook for two to three hours a day, while an Italian is accustomed to being online the whole day, since the Internet and smartphones have bigger market penetration in Italy and connection prices are lower.

There is evidence that children using communication technologies from an early age (2 or 3 years old) are bigger users of social networking sites(SNS) like Facebook when they reach ages 11 to 13.

In our studies (Italy and Spain 2012, Peru 2010) on the subject we have found that the boost for SNS happens between 13 and 15. However, the time they spend networking is generally not excessive. In Italy and Spain, only 19 percent of 14-year-olds spend more than 7 hours from Monday to Friday on SNS, updating their profile, posting, chatting… There is a similar pattern during weekends: 48 percent of the sample spend less than 3 hours in SNS during the weekend, and 27 percent less than 6 hours. This indicates that social media are real spaces in ordinary life for the so-called digital natives and do not occupy all their free time. So there is no cause for alarm about addiction or isolation, at least in the majority of the adolescents of our sample.

Something similar can be said of video games: we have not found huge differences based on the day of the week. But there is a significant association between the number of hours of playing during the week and the weekend. That means the question is not how much time the child is connected with a specific platform, but what kind of lifestyle he or she has — what he/she does online, what kind of digital experiences they consume.

Even within the most developed countries, however, there is a digital divide. Only 76 percent of Italians and Spanish kids have access to all or almost all the platforms. Only 35 percent have Internet access in school, while 83 percent have it at home and 80 percent have mobile telephones. What happens among the children who are not connected? Although we cannot recommend that children should be digitally connected to the point that it can interrupt their social and personal development, it is time to address two specific concerns: a) access to digital content of high quality, such as digital libraries, and b) digital skills development which will enable social cohesion as well as integration as children grow up.

What do youngsters typically do online?

In our studies, we have explored some variables that may be related to a teen’s lifestyle: 17 percent said they regularly view pornography, 7 percent practice “sexting”, while only 5 percent participate in online social campaigns and 16 percent write articles or upload videos. We have not asked children about other activities, since they were analyzed by other studies, and we were not focused on digital skills.

Is violence a big theme in social media? In what ways does it show itself?

Violence is a big issue in society, and consequently in social media. Children are still the most vulnerable to violence, whether online or offline. We cannot say that the situation is worse than in the past, but we know it pervades all the younger generations’ spaces. In the social media, this is manifested through pornography, sexting, cyber–bullying, and the promotion of suicide and other misbehaviors.

What proportion of your sample of students seemed to be at risk of bullying others and other risky behaviour? What were the main risk factors?

We found that 19 percent had threatened their acquaintances, 32 percent would not hesitate to use violence in order to protect what they consider to be “their rights”, 27 percent would insult their friends if they were provoked by them, and 10 percent said they were ready to crack humiliating jokes about other persons. This means there is a medium-level risk of bullying actions in 27 percent of the sample, while 5 percent of it seemed to be at HIGH risk of bullying others.

We are exploring the main risk factors, but our initial analysis suggests the following: lack of parental supervision, low intergenerational dialogue and cohesion, no personal beliefs (religion), negative peer group relationships, a utilitarian concept of friendship, a low level of values and self-esteem, and few intellectual or cultural interests. Overall, relational lifestyles are very significant and other factors disposing a young person to violence would include negative role models, high consumption of violent content in social media and lack of access to high quality socio–cultural goods and services.

Do kids understand that bullying is wrong? That it can harm other persons? Or do they see it as more of an “extreme sport” — edgy and exciting but not seriously wrong?

Our research shows that 37 percent think it is logical to try out new and exciting experiences such as sexting or cyber-bullying without bothering if they are unconventional or a bit illegal. This confirms the findings of the focus groups in our study: there is a low level of conviction of the harm that certain types of conduct may do to the others. Another dimension of the issue is anonymity: it is easier to play a “joke” or do serious harm when there is no direct contact with the victim.

Studies tend to come up with mixed findings on video games. Did your study show whether such games foster violence among users?

It is a difficult question to answer, a “million dollar” question. Anderson and others have published several studies and meta-studies that show a significant association between violent games and violent behavior. However, there is no serious research that can confirm that games cause or foster violence among users as a single or main factor. There is no single factor causing violent behavior. However, violent video games can facilitate the desensitization process, or confirm negative attitudes, or increase personal solitude and social disconnection.

From our perspective, confirmed by our studies, violence and risky behaviors in general are related to variables that can be “summarized” in the child’s relationships. A negative relational lifestyle, usually developed in a broken or dysfunctional family but also confirmed by fashion, public opinion and role models, fosters violence. This is especially true in a “liquid society” that lacks agreed moral criteria or tradition.

What role do parents seem to play in promoting safe social media use? Are most of them monitoring what kids do online, or are they largely hands-off?

Good family climate, intergenerational dialogue, family cohesion and parental supervision are significantly associated with positive relational lifestyles and less violent or risky behaviors. However, I would recommend not just “monitoring” but “positive monitoring” by parents, which means dialogue with kids, understanding the online world, developing one’s skills and, particularly, TEACHING BY DOING.

Unfortunately parents do have a largely hands-off attitude: in our study sample 42.2 percent do not control the time their children spend watching TV, playing video games or stay connected to the Internet; 48.3 percent do not offer advice on how to use these platforms; 42 percent habitually do not watch films together with other members of the family; and 73 percent do not play video games with their children.

In most families the level of dialogue is average or below average. It is only high in 27.5 percent of the cases. Some 60.4 percent of kids have never or hardly ever spoken with their parents about what they do or their experience in using the Internet. Finally, we have identified important gaps in interpersonal relations within the family, accompanied by a permissive attitude on the part of the parents: 16 percent of the teenagers claim that their parents give them whatever they ask for and 40.7 percent describe their family atmosphere as permissive.

What else is happening in the home environment, and what difference does it make to children’s attitudes?

Only 28.7 percent talk about the political and economic situation of their town or country. This implies poor civic education and underdevelopment of social capital. Research has shown that having a vision of history enables teenagers go beyond their infantile egocentrism towards a greater openness to their social context and broad-mindedness. For a detailed explanation of these ideas we recommend the reading of Alessandro Cavalli’s “Il tempo de giovani” (The time of the youth).

The finding that very few adolescents speak with the parents about important issues affecting their age group — such as love and sexuality — tallies with the results of previous research. In our sample 78.3 percent have not discussed with parents how to control their sexual impulses and only 25.4 percent have talked about how best to control their emotions. This lack of dialogue on key issues for adolescents is related to low self-esteem and active bullying.

Did the students you surveyed have good friends “offline”? Has social networking influenced adolescent friendship positively or negatively in your view?

There is evidence that online social networking is positively associated with the capacity to establish social relationships and with freedom of speech.

However, in our sample of young people 27.4 percent claimed they lacked the necessary freedom to express their opinion to friends; only 8.2 percent considered their friends as privileged sources of information on issues such as religion and politics; and only 28.2 percent found the help they need among their friends in order to deal with important issues for which they lack parental assistance. This raises the question of where the rest of them find assistance. It would not be surprising if the Internet became the “place” where they look to satisfy their unmet needs.

Adolescent friendships tend not to generate social capital. We found that only 29.7 percent engage in sporting activities or go on excursions with their friends, and 5.1 percent take part in voluntary work. Only 30.2 percent of those interviewed have a group of friends with whom they undertake concrete projects.

Could you sketch a profile for us of, say, a 13-year-old who is in the strongest position socially, psychologically and ethically when using social media?

We call him/her a member of a GPS Generation. These youngsters have a clear orientation in life and often take the initiative in interacting with both friends and adults. They enjoy freedom of expression and have people who offer them models of behaviour through dialogue and supervision. They have a strong value system and self-esteem. Their lifestyles are far removed from risky situations, although that does not mean they are afraid of taking risks. Their free time is characterized by a balance between intellectual and social activities. They are usually believers, with varying levels of religious practice. Their consumption of violence in the media and the risk of bullying is low.

You have designed a programme for educating young people about safe social media. Which group in your study did you use it with? What did you learn from that exercise?

The programme Safe Social Media is an applied research project in media education that seeks to reduce violence among children and young people by developing their critical and creative capacities through positive role models and constructive dialogue based on concrete cases. Our evaluation shows that it can reduce acceptance of violence, including consumption of violent media content and role models. It increases dialogue with parents and regard for them as privileged sources of information.

We learned two main lessons:

a) Educators may increase their efforts to develop teens’ soft skills, especially decision–making, assessing the reliability of information sources, active use of information technologies and, above all, participation in positive social groups — that is, friendship.

b) Parents should become allies of educators, participating in the activities organized by schools, promoting through personal example sustainable lifestyles, and helping their children to organize a healthy leisure time.

It seems there is a lot of work to do to make social media a safe environment for young people. Who else should be doing it?

Parents and educators have a key role. But they cannot do it alone. Politicians must promote the UN CRC and prevention projects focused in the children’s socialization context (family and school). Children must be at the center of social policies. Kids’ positive development should be the main criterion of the quality of media products — and the companies that make them. Overall, we should promote a child-centered society, promoting a healthy and sustainable model of family and parenting.

Reynaldo Rivera is an economist with a Masters degree in Social Research Methodology. Based in Rome, he is Intermedia Social Innovation CEO and Safe Social Media Research Project Manager.