Growing up in today’s generations of children and young people is largely happening in virtual worlds. The ongoing networking of these generations is also evidenced by data from a recent survey of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, which in 2019, in collaboration with the Zagreb Office of Public Health and the Society for Communication and Media Culture, conducted a national research project “Social Online Experiences and Mental Health young people, ” according to which almost all adolescents (99.5%) have internet access and as much as 95% have Internet access via mobile. These figures are increasing year by year if we compare the results with a survey conducted by the our Center in collaboration with the Brave Phone Association in 2013 about the experiences and behavior of children and young people on the social network Facebook.

Compared to when 93% of children had an open profile on the social network Facebook, today most of the social life of children and young people takes place on some other social networks, so only half of young people use Facebook to communicate. A survey conducted in 2019 found that most young people today use Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube and Snapchat. Half of young people spend more than 3 hours a day on social networks and check notifications as soon as they arrive, while one in five young people constantly check their cell phones, whether or not they arrive.

When we write about today’s generations of children, it is not easy to stop and find that the generations that are growing up today are touch-screen generations, and how in a few decades the way children grow up has changed from the time when there was no screen at all to the time when children actively use the Internet at a young age by touching the screens. The true consequences of these changes are yet to be fully explored, and there is increasing research on the impact of screen and virtual life on preschoolers. European countries have also seen an increase in the number of children under the age of 9 using the Internet in recent years, with children using different content at an earlier age. Children under 9 with the support of their parents use the Internet for a range of activities, such as watching videos, playing games, searching information, learning or socializing. For example, one study shows that almost half of Austrian children between the ages of 3 and 6 use the Internet regularly.

Croatia is no exception. A survey conducted by the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center in collaboration with Brave Phone in 2017 found that all children today are exposed to screens from an early age, and that preschoolers, on average, spend 2.4 hours on weekdays and 3 hours in front of screens during weekends. As many as 80% of children live in a household with 5 or more electronic devices, and we can expect that number from 2017 to be even higher today. At the time, it was also claimed that two-thirds of preschool children were exposed to screens during meals, and as much as 90% before bedtime. Most parents as reasons for their pre-school children provide screens states learning, entertainment and occupying attention. Research also connects that the time preschoolers spend in front of screens carries certain risks, such as difficulty maintaining concentration and attention, body weight, and difficulty in attention if children spend time with the screen at bedtime.

The Internet undoubtedly brings many opportunities, presenting a platform for learning, developing interests, a source of information on a variety of topics, developing identity, connecting with peers, and facilitating communication with others. At the same time, it is important to be aware that the internet brings some risks. One of the most prominent among them is certainly cyberbullying.

Electronic peer violence involves various behaviors that occur through the internet, cell phones, and other electronic devices that an individual or group seeks to harm. Cyberbullying may include the dissemination of unpleasant information (whether true or false) about individuals, their families and/or friends, the dissemination of confidential information intended solely for the person who disseminates them, the dissemination of photographs or videos taken without the victim’s consent or those taken by the victim for a narrow circle of persons, but also efforts to exclude the person from society.

The extent to which these behaviors are widespread is the result of our 2013 survey, according to which 1 in 5 teens was exposed to abusive messages or comments via Facebook, and one in six even threatened. A significant number of children and young people experienced intrusion into their profile (16%), spreading lies (11%), blocking or expelling them from the group (11%), or encouraging others to talk badly about them (7%). Every sixth received unwanted sexual content messages. These behaviors have many consequences, which can often be more severe than the effects of peer violence that take place face-to-face.

New risks on the Internet

Today’s changes also bring phenomena that were not present before. So today we are talking about phenomena such as sexting and sextortion, which occur so quickly that it is difficult to track them with language translations.

Sexting refers to the sending or receiving or forwarding sexually suggestive or explicit content, including text messages, personal or other people’s photos and videos, via cell phone or the Internet. A 2019 Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center’s survey shows that as many as 60% of youth received a message of sexually suggestive or explicit content, and more than half of the youth received such a photo or video. As many as 46% of young people received such content without seeking it. It is also important to note that more than 40% of young people at least sometimes respond to such content. Submitting such content is acknowledged by only 6% of young people, while 17% of young people say that they forward such photos and videos of acquaintances without their consent.

Sextortion is a form of blackmail that is perpetrated by the perpetrator through the internet and involves some form of threat, usually to post or forward sexually explicit photographs of the victim if the victim does not engage in further sexual activities in some way. A 2019 survey indicates that 13% of young people have sent such a photo as an exhortation, 4% for coercion, and more than 5% for seeking a significantly older person, who consider it completely voluntary, while as many as 14% of young sexting under the influence of intoxicants. These figures show that the risks on the Internet are changing over the years and it is important to be aware of them so that we know how to respond on time.

While in 2013, 34% of children and young people stated that they at least sometimes accept friendship requests from strangers, a 2019 survey shows that twice as many, even 68% of adolescents, correspond with strangers.

Furthermore, in 2013, 21% of children and young people said they might or certainly would go out to meet an unknown person they met via Facebook, and 8% of them actually did, while a 2019 survey shows that as many as 35 % of young people met a person they met on a social network. These figures show that young people are increasingly willing to engage in risky activities, often without the knowledge of adults.

And parents?

Foreign research shows that 97% of parents check their social networks at least once a day, 25% are on them all day, while our 2017 survey indicates that every other parent is on the cellphone for more than two hours a day, and every fourth parent on weekends more than two hours a day on a computer. There are more and more distractors diverting our attention from children and young people, and research shows that modern parents’ penchant for using excessive mobile devices or paying more attention to technology than children is affecting their attachment and growing up style. So it is important that before we try to change our children, we ask ourselves if we are an example of how and how much time we spend in front of screens, whether we look at every message or email that comes up, or interrupt a conversation with a child every time a cellphone rings, by notification or call.

Foreign research also shows that parents post an average of 195 photos of their children a year. A 2017 our Center’s survey found that 65% of adults posted a photo of a preschooler on social media. As long as we post photos of our children on social networks, it is difficult for us to be credible to our children as we instruct them not to, whether they are posting their own or others’ photos.

Growing Up on the Internet – How to Restore Childhood Safety?

Parents and other adults who are important in their child’s life are unavoidable allies in facing the challenges of growing up in the virtual world. However, working with parents, it seems that they often feel reluctant to engage in children’s online lives, stating that their children have a much better understanding of modern technologies than they are and that they are unsure how to contribute to their safety. Therefore, it is not surprising that according to a 2013 survey, as many as 78% of children and young people said they had no social networking rules, and one-fourth of preschool parents in 2017 said they never set rules for all screens that a child use.

These dizzyingly rapid changes take place in such a way that most parents over time can no longer keep up with them and, with the best of their will, remain involved in the virtual lives of their children. Indeed, children today know much more about the use of technology, but knowing how to use the Internet does not necessarily mean knowing how to use it in a way that is safe and responsible to us for others. Today’s generations of children are the first to grow up with information and communication technologies from an early age. That is why their relationship to technology is very intuitive and spontaneous, they are able to master change much faster and we can learn a lot from them. At the same time, since they do not have the experience of growing up without modern technology, they lack the necessary criticality and need guidance and support. Parents are therefore encouraged to show an unobtrusive but supportive interest in children’s online lives. Just as we care about what our children do on the playground behind the school, it is up to us to care and what they do on the virtual playground.

Bearing in mind that 95% of Croatian children and young people nowadays access their computers via mobile phones, it is clear that children’s behavior on the Internet is impossible to fully control. In line with this are findings from numerous studies that show that leadership, namely directing children’s online behavior through conversation and policy-making, is more important. The cornerstone of parenting in all matters, including child safety online, is the trusting and warm parent-child relationship. Such a relationship creates a safe environment that increases the likelihood that the child will turn to the parent for advice or assistance. It is also very important for parents to be aware of signs that may indicate that the child is experiencing or committing violence, and to be prepared to seek help and support when they are concerned.

The comforting information is that although every fourth adolescent spends most of their free time on social networks, according to a 2019 survey, less than 5% of them choose it as their favorite leisure activity, which has not changed since a survey conducted six years earlier. Young people today, while suggesting otherwise, still prefer to make live contact with friends than in the virtual world.

Myths that many young people believe in

Many young people have beliefs that are firmly held without question, and some of them are part of the reason why they do not respond when you notice violence online, whether it is happening to them or their peers. The following are some of the common myths we hear from young people in their daily work that are important to talk about:

Myth 1. Those who experience cyberbullying most often deserve it themselves.

No one deserves to be treated violently by anyone.

Myth 2. Violence through the internet is not punishable, and the perpetrator cannot be detected anyway.

If what we say or do outside of virtual life is not legal, then it is illegal on the internet as well. In addition, the police have their own ways of tracking down Internet perpetrators.

Myth 3. There is no point in reaching out to adults because it is happening on the internet.

Just as adults can help children and young people in real life, so can help with cyberbullying.

Myth 4. On the internet often everyone is offended, this is normal.

It’s okay to joke, but if it offends someone and becomes violent, that’s wrong. Just because something seems common doesn’t mean it’s normal.

Myth 5. If I notice that cyberbullying is happening to another, there is not much I can do.

We can always respond – tell an adult, call the Brave Phone at an anonymous and call free number for children and young people 116 111 and provide support to whoever is going on. The problem is that, according to some studies, as many as 90% of children ignore inappropriate online behavior by their peers, thereby allowing or supporting online violence.

Myth 6. Online violence is not as serious as face-to-face violence.

Online violence can sometimes have greater consequences than face-to-face violence. The specificities of peer violence that contribute to this are the anonymity of the perpetrator (young people often do not know who did it and may doubt the majority they know, which characterizes relationships with distrust and fear), constant exposure 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, unlimited audience opportunities this can be witnessed by a lack of adult supervision, which contributes to the victim’s insecurity and anxiety, as well as to the reduced perceptions of the perpetrator’s responsibility.

What not to say to the young people who are going through this?

Sentences like “Just turn off the internet”, “Just ignore them”, “Give them back”, “Stop bothering with this”, “If you didn’t send such a photo there would be no problem”, except that they do not fulfill their intention of comfort, do harm children and young people, and the reason is that they show misunderstanding and blame, and they arise more from trying to comfort ourselves in power or anger, or simply solve a problem, and only contribute to the less and less frequent contact of parents and adults when they have a problem.

Here are some tips for safe and responsible use of the Internet that parents can discuss with children and young people:

– Protect your profile on social networks and other platforms so that it is visible only to people you trust.

– Do not share content that you would not like to see from a wider circle of friends, your parents or teachers (especially photos or recordings) on your profile.

– Don’t disclose your personal information to people you don’t know or trust in real life. (it is important to discuss with the child what is meant by personal information)

– Don’t reveal your passwords to anyone, not even close friends.

– Some people don’t tell the truth about themselves. We can never be sure who is on the other side of the screen. Don’t accept friendship requests from strangers.

– A stranger on the internet is like a stranger in real life – be careful and do not go out to meet people you have met online.

– Periodically check what is written about you on the internet by typing your first and last name in Google search engine.

– Do not reply or send a message when you are angry. Wait until you are calm and then send whatever you want, because there is no going back.

– Always ask yourself before sending or posting something to make you feel that you are receiving this message – if you think it might hurt someone in real life or you don’t want to show it to everyone, don’t do it online.

– Do not forward messages, photos, or recordings that may put you or others in distress.

– Any of us can help stop the violence – if you notice inappropriate online behaviors, let the adult know.

More about the results of our Center’s research: the research on the experiences and behaviors of children and young people on the social network Facebook from 2013, the survey on the extent of pre-school children in front of screens from 2017, and the study of social online experiences and mental health of young people from 2019, can be found at to the Center’s RESEARCH column at the main navigation bar .

Instead of a conclusion

Surveillance is not fully possible nowadays, and research shows that it is not effective either. All research and daily clinical practice takes us back to the relationship and importance of having a relationship with a child. At a younger age, this means, among other things, recognizing that a child wants something, even when we do not fulfill it. In adolescence, we will show our interest and availability to young people, instead of asking numerous questions, open conversation on the topic of violence nad discuss it openly. And regardless of age we will nurture caring, setting boundaries, respecting and empowering children and young people as the core values ​​on which parenting and relationships with children are built. It is important for children that we adults hear and see them, that we adults respect them, even when we don’t allow them to do what they want.

Written by: Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD, Clinical psychologist – Psychotherapist, Tea Brezinšćak, Psychologist and Ana Marija Španić, Psychologist

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