Results of the national research project “Online social experiences and mental health of youth”

During the past year, Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, in collaboration with the City of Zagreb Health Office and the Society for Communication and Media Culture, has conducted a national research project “Online Social Experiences and Mental Health of Youth”. Sudents from first and third grades of highschools from Osijek, Zagreb, Rijeka, Split and Dubrovnik (1772 in total) answered a number of questions from a specially designed questionnaire in a form close to them- via tablets, and filled in Beck’s inventory. In addition to high school and vocational school students, school associates shared their thoughts, experiences and needs with us.

Life on social networks

Almost all adolescents have access to internet from their home (99.5%), 95.1% from their mobile phone, and 77.9% from their school. Every third adolescent uses social network from 3 to 5 hours a day, and every fifth adolescent for more than 5 hours a day.

As soon as the notification arrives, almost every other adolescent checks social networks immediately, every third adolescent checks them several times a day, and every fifth adolescent checks social network CONSTANTLY, whether or not the notification arrived.

Of all social networks, young people mostly use YouTube – 97.7%, followed by Instagram -92.6%, WhatsApp – 88.7%, Snapchat – 63.2% and Facebook Messenger – 50.6%.

Instagram is the social network where half of young people spend most of their time – about 50% of them, followed by YouTube – 20%, WhatsApp – 13.7%, Snapchat – 11.3%, Facebook messenger – 2.3%, and Facebook only 0.6% of adolescents.


When does digital identity start to develop

Nearly one in four adolescents has opened their first social networking profile at the age of 12 years old, and about 30% of adolescents have opened their first social networking profile at age of 10 years old or under, although the age limit for most social networks is 13. Before the age of 10, 17.5% of youth opened the profile. Most young people (68.7%) opened their first profile on Facebook. Every other adolescent has more than one profile on Instagram.

One third of young people had their first profile opened by someone else, in most cases (47.2%) parents, then siblings (22.3%), friends (21.1%) and other members of the wider family (2.8%).

What is happening behind the small screens?

68.3% of the participants corresponded with the person they met online.

Every tenth adolescent has more friends online than in real life.

One in three adolescents considers at least some of their online friends real friends.

13% of adolescents met their former or current partner on social networks.


Figure 2 shows how young people would like to spend their free time and how they actually spend it. Although less than 5% would choose social networks, every fourth adolescent spends most of their free time doing so.

Are dangers present only in online world?

Most young people from the sample report engaging in at least one risky behavior.


One in three adolescents from the sample had sexual intercourse, ranging from the age of 14 years old (11.1%) to 17 years old (25%). The most common age of first intercourse is 16 years old.

In Croatia, 565 adolescents, or 35% of young people, went to meet a person they met on social networks.



Young people mostly talk with friends about sexual relations (58.5%). More than a third of young people seek information online, next are discussions with parents and partners, and only 12.8% of them seek and receive information at school.

At least once:


  •  58.6% of adolescents received messages of sexually explicit content,
  • 52.4% of adolescents received sexually explicit photos or videos,
  • 10.8% of adolescents received sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves,
  • 19.7% of adolescents received sexually explicit photos or video of a partner,
  • 50.5% of adolescents received sexually explicit photos or video of acquaintances.

Every fourth adolescent received sexually explicit material most frequently via Snapchat or Instagram.

Almost every tenth adolescent exchanged sexually explicit material under the influence of alcohol.

After receiving sexually explicit material, the largest number of participants, almost 40% responded at least once. Almost half of adolescents (43.7%) never told the sender to stop regardless of how they felt.

When adolescents are asked about sending, only 5.8% of them, more boys than girls, have at least once sent a sexually explicit message. Young people distinguish between sending and forwarding, so 17% of adolescents say they have forwarded a sexually explicit video or photo of an acquaintance without their consent.

Given the fact that the vast majority of young people say they receive sexually explicit content from peers, the question is how more than 60% received such content, and less than 6% sent, or less than 20% forwarded. Why are texting and forwarding to young people such different categories? These are just some of the questions that this research opens.


Of all young people who said they sexted, 16.7% did it with only one person, 17% with three or more people, and 3.3% with someone completely anonymous.

More than girls, boys send sexually explicit content of others, themselves, partners and acquaintances, with or without consent of that person.

Nearly one in five adolescents sexted under persuasion or coercion.

Persuasion is most often made by a partner, then by a friend, someone they like and know in person, someone they like and don’t know in person.

100 participants (5.4%) exchanged sexually challenging material with a significantly older person. Of those 100, 87 stated they did it voluntarily, 7 did it after being persuaded and 6 under coercion. Can an adolescent really give mature consent and voluntarily engage in sexting with an adult? What creates the impression of voluntariness of such activities?


Why do young people sext?

As the most common reason for sexting, participants suggest flirting with another person, feeling sexual arousal, increasing intimacy with another person, dating another person, feeling desirable, checking whether they look attractive, in exchange for a favor, hurting someone and in exchange for money or gifts.

Most adolescents state that they feel comfortable while sexting – sexually aroused, happy, curious, attractive, satisfied, and from unpleasant emotions they state that they feel unsafe, shy, worried, confused, uneasy, tired, guilty and angry.

Boys often feel euphoric, courageous, relaxed, attractive, playful, excited, calm, happy, satisfied, but also frustrated, exhausted, jealous, angry, sad, tired and lonely during sexting. Girls are more likely to feel disgust.

Who can they talk to and where are we adults?


More than half of young people do not talk to anyone about sexting, about a third of young people talk to friends, 2.8% to parents, 2.2% to someone over the internet, and 0.3% to experts in school. In relation to the results regarding seeking information about sexual relations, there is a noticeable difference in the number of people to whom young people turn, as well as the fact that they seek someone to talk to less than self-informing.

Sexting and mental health

Adolescents’ impaired self-image is associated with texting online with people they do not know in person.

Receiving, sending and forwarding sexually suggestive messages / photos / videos, sexting under coercion and persuasion, sexting with a significantly older person, going on meetings with strangers, risky real-life behaviors (cigarettes, marijuana, alcohol, unprotected sexual intercourse, betting, playing lottery, gambling) are moderately associated with the expression of disruptive behaviors, in other words, externalized difficulties in adolescents such as aggression, confrontation, difficulties in relations with others, violation of norms and rules.

Also, adolescents who sext under coercion and persuasion and ask the sender to stop or ignore the received content, have stronger and more frequent experiences of anger, they cope with anger and control it more unsuccessfuly, which can be manifested through externalized or internalized difficulties.

Texting with strangers online, seeing them as friends, receiving sexual content on social networks, as well as receiving pictures and videos of themselves, and attempts to stop sexting, or requesting the sender to stop sending sexual content, are the experiences associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression in young people (smoking cigarettes is also associated with depression).

Receiving sexually provocative messages, photos in general, but also photos of themselves and/or their partner, sending photos of themselves and forwarding photos of their partner (with or without consent) is associated with suicidal thoughts. The greatest association with suicidal thoughts was found in young people who sext under persuasion and coercion, as well as in those who sext with a significantly older person.

Expert associates in school

40.7% of experts in schools are not familiar with the concept of sexting, and the same percentage of experts think that they are not familiar with it enough, 85% say that they have not encountered with sexting in their school.

Four-fifths of experts say their 1st and 2nd grade students never confided in them with problem of sexting, and 88.9% of experts say their 3rd and 4th grade students never confided in them with the same problem.

Regarding extortion of sexually provocative material (sextortion), 1st and 2nd grade students didn’t confide in 92.6% of experts, and 3rd and 4th grade students didn’t confide in 96.3% of experts.

Workshops and lectures on this topic were held in 44.4% of schools, a third of them in 3rd or 4th grade. Is this really prevention and when it could or should be implemented?

Almost all experts (92.3%) stated that they would like and need additional education for their daily work.

Once again, we would like to thank all the school principals and colleagues in the professional services who have enabled us to successfully implement this major national research project. We also thank almost 1,800 young people who patiently and diligently completed the questionnaires, offered us a broad insight into their online lives and taught us valuable lessons. It is up to us to justify that trust and be there for them.


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