Accession of Croatia to the European Union opens opportunities for a better and more intensive cooperation between the Child Protection Center of Zagreb and the Council of Europe and the European Union member states. We have been invited to present our practice of hearing children-victims during the criminal pre-trial in the child friendly environment. The presentation was held at the Council of Europe Strasbourg Seminar on 9 February 2012.
The Brave Phone and The Child Protection Center of Zagreb conducted research this year about the experience and behaviour of children on the Internet and Facebook social network on the sample of 1489 children in Croatia aged 11 to 18, in rural and urban schools.
As expected, this was confirmed: there is an almost absolute coverage of child population by Facebook network. As much as 93% of children have a Facebook profile, while 18% have more than one. Most of the children, 68% of them, created their profile before 13, the age when it is allowed to create a profile on this social network.
In the majority of families there are no rules set about children’s use of the Internet and Facebook
The presence of underage population on Facebook is almost continuous – 84% of children view their profiles and set posts on their mobile phones which they always have with them. Every fifth child spends more than three hours on Facebook, and half of the children in the sample view their Facebook profiles during classes.
Still, in 78% of families there are no rules set about the use of Facebook. Only 17% of children say that such rules exist in their families and that they follow these rules, while 5% of the children admit they break the rules. The older the children are, the more lax parental restrictions on their use of Facebook, and it is exactly the children aged 15 to 16 who are the most endangered group for both the experiencing and perpetrating peer bullying. So, there are no rules about how to use Facebook for 93% of the children who commit the abuse via Facebook, as well as for 88% of the children who both experience and commit the abuse.
In the overall sample of the children included in this study, 12.1% of them experience abuse on Facebook, while 9.6% of them are abusive. The analysis of the children who were involved in the abuse on Facebook in any way, showed that 44.4% of them experienced abuse, 29.7% showed abusive behaviour, while 25.9% of children both experienced and were abused on Facebook.
Unlike 70% of their peers who would never accept a request to be friends with unknown persons, every second child among those involved in abuse via Facebook do that. Children involved in abuse via Facebook more often say that they would be willing to meet the unknown person they met on Facebook. Children who both experience and commit abuse are most inclined to do that. Unlike 82% of their peers who were not involved in abuse via Facebook, such a meeting is considered to be unacceptable by only 73% of children who experienced abuse, 66% of children who committed abuse and 50% of children who both experienced and committed abuse.
Children who both experience and commit abuse on Facebook are at highest risk
Children who both commit and experience abuse on Facebook proved to have most emotional and behavioural difficulties: impaired self-image, more anxiety and depression, more anger and unacceptable behaviours than children who only commit the abuse via Facebook. Anxiety and depression in children who both commit and experience abuse via Facebook are more expressed than in children who only experience abuse via Facebook.
Every fifth child says that s/he received hurtful messages or comments via Facebook several times or often, every second child experienced it at least once, while 9% of children admit that they committed it more than once. Every fourth child experienced lies spread about them on Facebook, while 7% admit they spread lies themselves.
Every sixth child says that somebody logged in on their Facebook profile and published unpleasant information about them in their name, while 8% of children admit they did such things.
Thirteen percent of children admit that they deliberately blocked or excluded other children from some group with the aim of isolating them. Three percent of them opened a Facebook group in order to deride and insult other children. Fifteen percent of children received threats via Facebook, while 7% admit they sent threats to other children.
Children have difficulties in controlling their use of the Internet and Facebook
Our study also showed that children who have poor control over their use of the Internet (e.g. they find it difficult to leave the Internet or think about the Internet when they are not there, more often neglect their obligations due to the Internet…) have a poor self-image, are more anxious, show more symptoms of depression and have a stronger tendency to unacceptable behaviour.
One of ten children think that they neglect their regular school obligations due to the Internet. At the same time every third child thinks that s/he should spend less time on the Internet. As much as 23% of children, i.e. every fourth child is included in the study continues to use the Internet with equal frequency, despite the intention to use it less often. The Internet is used by 15% of children who do it when they feel down and 12% of children who do it to escape sadness and unpleasant feelings. Due to excessive use of the Internet 9% of children feel they do not sleep enough, while 10% feel uneasy and irritable when they cannot use the Internet. Every sixth child tries to finish homework as fast as possible in order to log in on the Internet as soon as possible.
The majority of children on Facebook has between 300 and 500 friends, and the most usual information on their profiles are private photos and links to various contents. As much as 85% of children share their full name and surname of Facebook profiles, 36% share their e-mail address and 31% share the name of their school. If some unknown person invites them via Facebook to meet, 18% say that they might accept it.
26% of children spend their free time most often on the Internet
Despite that, asked how they would prefer to spend their free time, only 5% of children answered that they would like to spend it on the Internet, while 95% would rather spend time with friends or engage in some free activity.
In reality, 26% of children spend their free time most often on the Internet. Most of these children, 83% of them, would prefer to spend their free time otherwise: 62% of them would rather spend their time with friends, while 21% would prefer some sport and free activities to the Internet.
Therefore we may conclude that the Internet and Facebook are not specifically children’s free choice, but some children find it to be the only way to meet friends and to engage in some activity.
Today children belong to a generation which is much more skilful in exploiting the possibilities offered by the Internet. Participating in social networks, children satisfy their need for friends and exploration of the world. However, in order that they are safe and responsible, they need guidance and support of adults. This study gives insight into the way children use and experience social networks and the Internet in general, indicates the importance of parental rules and the importance of providing other possibilities for the children to satisfy their need for friends in the “real” world.
Results of this research will surely help not only parents and children, but professionals, too, in creating preventive programs and training of children and parents.
Therefore, special thanks go to the Brave Phone volunteers who invested their enthusiasm and knowledge in this study. Travelling to schools all over Croatia, they significantly contributed to conducting this study.