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French Youth: Online and Exposed?

Three questions to Sonia Livingstone

INTERVIEW - 21 July 2020

Social media and the Internet are central to the lives of most young people today. To better understand how the youth perceives the Internet, Institut Montaigne conducted a comprehensive poll on French citizens, particularly young people and parents. The revealing results were then used to put forward ten proposals on how to make the online space safer for young people, and how to better engage all actors concerned, ranging from parents to the State. In this interview, Professor Sonia Livingstone, professor at the London School of Economics and advisor to the UK government and the European Commission on children’s rights in the digital environment, comments on the results, and draws comparisons between France and the UK.

Why are information and communication technologies often portrayed as harmful for children?

First of all, a distinction should be made between risks and harm. Young people might have experienced offensive name calling, for example, but they might be able to cope and be resilient. Overall, there is no strong evidence to date of a steady increase over time in online violence, hence it is not necessarily true that the more they have access to online content, the more unpleasant the activity becomes. Online violence is often about the outside world being reflected online. Generally, the study of cyberbullying must look at the links between how peer harassment is expressed offline and online, as these two environments are found to be correlated.

In Britain, the tabloid press panics parents enormously. However, parents should be less anxious, and prioritise open and trusting parent-child conversation. The gap in understanding between parents and children, whether because parents are too anxious or not sufficiently aware, is clearly highlighted in the Institut Montaigne’s study, French Youth: Online and Exposed. Generally, parent-child conversations are more focused on concerns over violence and pornography, but it is crucial also to give young people the tools to confront hate, racism etc. To date, there is still little discussion on where young people can go for guidance, which sometimes leads them to fight back, only making matters worse, whereas parents and educators need to be aware, engage in conversations and help youth find solutions.

The internet is changing the norms and the scale. There are adverse consequences, as people can’t see the person suffering, which diminishes the level of responsibility of perpetrators.

In Institut Montaigne’s survey, 24% of young people admitted to committing cyber violence themselves. This is high and should be a reason to worry. Children are not born harassing each other, expressing anger or hating others. There is some anger and frustration in the society, often borne out of the experience of inequality. Children also witness adults acting badly online, which they learn and mimic. Those are the root causes. These problems within society are not new, but the internet is changing the norms and the scale. There are adverse consequences, as people can’t see the person suffering, which diminishes the level of responsibility of perpetrators. Society has got to be responsible.

The Pew Research Center study, A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying, on which Institut Montaigne’s poll is based, also suggests that the risks for children are not randomly scattered: the ones who experience one type of harmful content are also the ones that experience others, both online and offline. Children experiencing cyberbullying are also likely to be those experiencing aggression at home, or visiting self-harm sites, etc. Most children experience little of it but see it happening to others. This bystander effect is important. They are usually aware of who is currently experiencing cyberbullying, and they know that the person is not getting help. In a way, they see firsthand the failure of adults to understand the violence.

Institut Montaigne’s report French Youth: Online and Exposed recommends including a diversity of actors, including parents and educators, to deal with cyber-bullying, as well as establishing a clearly identified "one-stop shop" to assist children and teenagers in need. Are these measures relevant in the UK too?

Schools indeed have a crucial role to play. They are increasingly taking responsibility, but they do too little about shifting the norms of behaviour, compared with delivering simple E-safety messages. So many children have done E-safety sessions, they know what they are supposed to do, yet one third of users still cannot protect their privacy online. This illustrates that schools can be more ambitious in teaching students how the online environment works, so they understand where their comments go, who collects their data, and understand more about the wider functioning of the internet. It is also crucial to manage the school environment online and offline in order to build trust.

Concerning the one-stop shop, in the UK, as in France, there are lots of different places where children can go when they experience cyberbullying. However, none of them have enough reach, except for Childline (a counselling helpline) that everybody knows. Originally, these services targeted offline violence and other problems, but increasingly they address online violence as well. To increase reach, the one-stop-shop is a good idea; however it comes with limitations. For example, if all children have heard of it, they might think that it concerns only extreme cases and therefore not reach for help for milder cases. To this purpose, other platforms are also important. However, in the UK they are all underfunded, and face trouble getting their details known to children. This is where the government could play a role to ensure they are more visible.

Institut Montaigne’s report also recommends auditing social media companies. What role do social media play in contemporary cyberbullying?

Every hateful comment we see online gets amplified by some algorithm. The design of platforms has the effect of making the world more hostile and extreme. This is what regulators should focus on. Let’s remember that young people have always said hostile things to each other. Often, it takes time for them to understand what they did. The problem with the online space is that words spread, and platforms keep a permanent record, which is damaging to the child.

The problem with the online space is that words spread, and platforms keep a permanent record, which is damaging to the child.

Even if youth lash out, it is crucial that it gets forgotten so that they can learn from it, move on and become a better person. Currently, platforms are not helping this. A good modification would be that when something hostile is written online, there is a box to say "Are you sure you want to send this?"

Overall, auditing the digital companies is important. An independent body should evaluate outcomes and compliance, because companies may be proficient in saying they are taking the right steps, but it is still difficult to assess whether, or how, they are doing it. After years pushing for self-regulation, I am now convinced that it is not enough. There is a need for legislation, and I’m hopeful about the work the European Commission is undertaking through the Digital Services Act. In that regard, it is interesting that the Institut Montaigne poll notes that 82% of French people think contents should be regulated.


Copyright: Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP


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