Risky online behaviour ‘almost normalised’ among young people, says study
EU-funded survey of people aged 16-19 finds one in four have trolled someone – while UK least ‘cyberdeviant’ of nine countries
Risky and criminal online behaviour is in danger of becoming normalised among a generation of young people across Europe, according to EU-funded research that found one in four 16- to 19-year-olds have trolled someone online and one in three have engaged in digital piracy.
An EU-funded study found evidence of widespread criminal, risky and delinquent behaviour among the 16-19 age group in nine European countries including the UK.
A survey of 8,000 young people found that one in four have tracked or trolled someone online, one in eight have engaged in online harassment, one in 10 have engaged in hate speech or hacking, one in five have engaged in sexting and one in three have engaged in digital piracy. It also found that four out of 10 have watched pornography.
Julia Davidson, a co-author of the research and professor of criminology at the University of East London (UEL), said risky and criminal online behaviour was becoming almost normalised among a generation of European young people.
“The research indicates that a large proportion of young people in the EU are engaging in some form of cybercrime, to such an extent that the conduct of low-level crimes online and online risk-taking has become almost normalised,” she said.
Davidson, who led the research with her UEL colleague Prof Mary Aiken, said the research findings pointed to more male participation in risky or criminal behaviour, with nearly three-quarters of males admitting to some form of cybercrime or online risk-taking, compared with 65% of females.
The survey asked young people about 20 types of behaviour online, including looking at pornographic material, posting revenge porn, making self-generated sexual images and posting hate speech.
According to the survey findings, just under half of participants engaged in behaviour that could be considered criminal in most jurisdictions, such as hacking, non-consensual sharing of intimate images or “money muling” – where someone receives money from a third party and passes it on, in a practice linked to the proceeds of cybercrime.
The survey, conducted by a research agency with previously used sample groups, found that half of 16- to 19-year-olds spent four to seven hours a day online, with nearly four out of 10 spending more than eight hours a day online, primarily on phones. It found that the top five platforms among the group were YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok and Snapchat.
The nine countries in the survey were the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Romania. The country with the highest proportion of what the study calls “cyberdeviancy” – a mix of criminal and non-criminal but risky behaviour – was Spain at 75%, followed by Romania, the Netherlands and Germany at about 72%. The UK was bottom at 58%.
The study was undertaken in collaboration with the cybercrime centre at Europol, an EU body that works with crime agencies across the economic bloc, and financed by the EU’s Horizon fund. It calls for greater education of young people and parents about what is potentially harmful and risky behaviour online.
The findings have been published against a backdrop of landmark online regulation in the EU and the UK. In the UK, the online safety bill, which returns to parliament next week, would create a number of new criminal offences. They include encouraging self-harm online and sharing deepfake pornography, meaning images that have been manipulated to look like someone without their consent.
Aiken said: “The online safety bill is potentially groundbreaking and addresses key issues faced by every country. It could act as a catalyst in holding the tech industry to account. The bill sets out a raft of key measures to protect children and young people; however, our findings suggest that there should be more focus on accountability and prevention, particularly in the context of young people’s online offending.”
The EU has just adopted the Digital Services Act, which requires large online platforms and Google to take action against risks such as cyber violence against women and online harms to children.