Context of the research
Over the last two decades, with the more intensive use of digital technology and the Internet on a global level, the Internet activities and the experiences of the young people have become an increasingly more common subject of interest of both scientific-professional and wider public. The current pandemic of the COVID 19 virus has contributed to the online environment becoming a “new normal” for the Internet users of all ages, including the young people. While in 2019, 54% of the total population used the Internet, in 2021, it was used by 63% of the total world population. Percentage of the young people who are using the Internet is significantly greater than the percentage of the Internet users in the total population. In 2020, 71% of the young people (aged between 15 and 24) used the Internet (in developed countries 99%, in developing countries 67% and in the least developed countries 34%), compared to the 57% of the people from other age groups (younger than 15 and older than 24). On a global scale, young people had 1.24 times greater chance to be online than the rest of the population.
Subject of the research
The subject of this research, broadly defined, are the experiences of the young people—high school and university students—in interaction with others, first of all, peers, in the digital, as well as the extradigital environment.
More specifically, we were interested in:
The amount of time that the young people spend in front of the screen of digital devices;
Number of friends (“online” and “offline”) that the young have and their self-assessment of the quality of the relationships with friends;
Perception of the online environment safety and the exposure of the young to different risks on the Internet;
Presence of digital (and traditional) peer violence and the forms of digital violence to which the young are most commonly exposed.
Description of the sample
The research has been conducted using a non-random, convenient sample. The questionnaire was filled out by 303 respondents, aged between 15 and 30 (M = 19,53; SD = 3,50). The sample includes almost equal number of high school students (51%) and university students (49%). The sample includes more than three quarters of girls (78%) and the disparity between the genders is even higher in the university students’ subsample (Chart 1).
Chart 1. Structure of the sample according to gender and level of education (%)
Instruments and the realisation of the research
For the purpose of this research, an online questionnaire was designed in which most of the questions are closed-ended (with provided answers), while several of them are open-ended (short answer) (Appendix 1). The questionnaire was created and distributed using a Google tool for creation of questionnaires (Google Form).
The questionnaire was filled in anonymously and it took about 15 minutes to complete it. It contains several questions regarding social-demographic variables of the respondents (gender, age).
Within the online questionnaire for self-assessment of relationships with online and offline friends, the respondents were given a Scale of Experiences in Close Relationships – Revised questionnaire, ECR-R. In the context of connection, two dimensions were being assessed: anxiety (level of insecurity connected to someone’s accessibility and empathy) and avoidance (level of discomfort connected to closeness or dependence on someone). Questions in the second part of the questionnaire, for the assessment of excessive use and risky behaviour on the Internet, have been taken over from the questionnaire used within the second cycle of the international research EU Kids Online, conducted in 2019.
Time spent on the Internet, “offline” and “online” friendships
The greatest percent of the young people in the sample spends around five hours per day on the Internet. Almost 60% of high school students and 44% of university students spend five hours or more in front of the screen, while 23% of high school students and 15% of university students spend seven hours or more on the Internet. Compared to the total number of friends, number of friends with whom they mostly hang out in person varies between 0 and 50, the same as the number of friends with whom they mostly socialise online. Half of the respondents has up to 5 friends with whom they mostly socialise in person, most of them (80%) have up to 10 friends, while 4% of the respondents (11 of them) have only one friend (9 respondents) or no friends (2 respondents) with whom they mostly socialise in person. On the other hand, quarter of the respondents (68 of them) have no friends with whom they mostly socialise online, while a half of them has 2 or less friends and the majority (around 80%) has 5 or less online friends. Despite the intensive use of the Internet, traditional form of relationship with friends “face-to-face” is dominant among the young. The results also show that high school students socialise with online friends more often that the university students, boys more often than the girls.
Anxiety is more prominent in relationships with offline friends, while the avoidance is more prominent in relationships with online friends. Young people more frequently confide to their offline friends, they more commonly share their worries and problems in person than in online contact and they worry more often if their offline friends truly care for them, compared to online friends (Chart 2).
Chart 2. Average score for anxiety and avoidance with offline and online friends
Safety and risky behaviours on the Internet
Speaking of the sense of personal safety on the Internet, findings indicate that over a half of the young people feels safe (43% often, 17% always). A little over one tenth of the young (5% of the boys and 13% of the girls) never feels safe on the Internet, while less than one fifth (38% of the boys and 11% of the girls) always feels safe on the Internet. It is important to emphasize that according to the sense of security on the Internet, high school students in Serbia are significantly below the average of the other European countries.
Excessive use of the Internet is considered to be one of the most important and in the literature, most commonly researched risks connected to the use of the Internet. It is often connected to the Internet addiction, but it cannot be equalled to it and it does not necessarily lead to psychopathology. Most of the young people admit that they use the Internet by inertia even when they are not truly interested in what they are doing—one fifth of the respondents does this every or almost every day. Three quarters of the young stated that because of the time that they spend on the Internet, their family and school obligations suffer; two thirds try, unsuccessfully, to spend less time in front of the screen, while more than a half of the young thinks that they have problems because of the amount of time that they spend on the Internet and they feel bad when they’re not online. One third of the young gets in confrontations with friends and family, although not often, because of the time spent in front of the screen. The smallest percent of the young people, but still, more than one quarter, neglects their physiological needs due to the use of the screen.
Risks connected to the contacts with strangers on the Internet are considered to be some of the most serious online risks, and in some cases, they can have negative consequences on the person’s functioning, not just in the digital, but in out of digital environment as well. Most of the young people (71%) becomes online friends with people that they already know. Almost every other high school student accepts all friendship requests, regardless of who sends them, which also includes requests from unknown persons. For almost one half of the respondents (43%), the experience of meeting in person with the people that they had first met online was pleasant, more than a quarter was indifferent, while almost one fifth of them was more or less upset.
Misuse of personal data is a frequently discussed online risk. Personal data imply all the data based on which a person can be identified (directly or indirectly) and their safety can be compromised. At least one quarter of the respondents has sent their personal data via the Internet (e.g., name and surname, photograph, address, phone number, etc.) to persons that they’ve never met face-to-face. Among the ones who did that, there are more boys than girls and more high school students than university students. One tenth of the young people hid their identity on the Internet and pretended to be someone else.
According to a generally accepted definition, digital violence or cyberbullying represents the use of digital technology and the Internet with the purpose of upsetting, hurting, humiliating or harming another person. In the last year, according to their own assessment, over one half of the respondents (57%) was exposed to bad or cruel behaviour in person—almost one half (42% or 112 respondents) several times and more than one tenth (15% or 41 respondents) at least once a month or more frequently. Both high school students and university students are more frequently exposed to traditional violence than violence in the digital environment. Last year, every other respondent was exposed to cyberbullying.
Apart from the role of someone who suffers violence, the young people can also find themselves in the role of someone who exerts violence. One third of the young (34%) admits that they themselves were violent in person towards their peers, most (31%) only a few times, while one fifth of the respondents (21%) admits that they are violent in the digital environment. At least once a month or more frequently, 11 respondents (4%) exhibited violent behaviour in the digital environment, while 10 respondents (4%) did so in person.
To what forms of cyberbullying are young people most commonly exposed?
Chart 3. Forms of Cyberbullying
Verbal violence represents the most common form of cyberbullying. Last year, bad and cruel messages on the Internet were received by 36% of high school students and 23% of university students. Social violence—being left out and exclusion from activities on the Internet—are the second most common (30% of high school students and 17% of university students). One tenth of the young people reports that inappropriate messages about them were shared publicly. Less than one tenth (8%) of the young people received threats online or they were exposed to other bad or cruel things. The smallest percent of the respondents (5%) reports that they were forced to do something that they did not want to.
Summary of the key findings
Young people included in the sample spent (on average) 4.5 hours online (high school students 4.7 hours, university students 4.3 hours); the average score for the excessive use of the Internet (for the entire sample) is 2.15 (on a scale from 1 to 5)—1.94 for boys and 2.21 for girls;
Two thirds of the young unsuccessfully try to spend less time on the Internet, while more than half of the young people think that they have problems because of the amount of time spent on the Internet and they feel bad when they are not online;
Despite the intensive use of the Internet, both high school students and university students prefer spending time with offline friends; online friendships are more common among the high school students than the university students, while anxiety is more common in relationships with offline friends, while avoidance is more frequent in relationship with online friends;
Most of the young people included in the sample (82%) had online contact with someone whom they do not know in person, while almost half of the respondents (48%) met in person with someone whom they had previously met online;
The young people are more often exposed to traditional violence that cyberbullying; last year, every other respondent was exposed to bad and cruel behaviour on the Internet; all forms of digital violence are more present among the high school students than university students.