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Demos - Quarter of young Brits confess to ‘bullying or insulting’ someone online

New research from Demos think tank mapping the behaviour and decision-making of young people online identifies a shockingly high incidence of hostile online behaviour towards peers – often linked to having previously experienced abuse on social media. Significantly, it highlights the strong relationship between offline and online character and morality in young people.

  • Research from think-tank Demos mapping the behaviour and decision-making of young people online, finds 26 per cent of the 16-18 year olds surveyed say they have ‘bullied or insulted someone else’ online
  • 15 per cent of the young people Demos surveyed said they had ‘joined in with other people to “troll” a celebrity or public figure’
  • Demos found that boys are significantly more likely to say they have bullied or insulted someone online than girls (32 per cent compared with 22 per cent) or ‘trolled’ a public figure (22 per cent compared with 10 per cent)
  • 93 per cent of those who said they had insulted or bullied someone else online, said that they had themselves experienced some form of cyber-bullying or abuse
  • Conversely, Demos finds that 88 per cent of the teenagers surveyed had given emotional support to someone online
  • Demos analysis finds that young people with stronger traits of empathy and self-control are considerably less likely to engage in cyberbullying.

The research finds that 26 per cent of young Britons have bullied or insulted someone online, while 15 per cent of young people have been involved with ‘trolling’ a public figure. Boys are far more likely to be engaged in cyberbullying or ‘trolling’ than girls, (32 per cent compared with 22 per cent and 22 per cent compared to 10 per cent).

The major new research project, which spanned nine months, involved Demos surveying 668 16-to-18 year olds over Facebook, exploring their online behaviour and responses to various social media scenarios. Demos also held focus groups with 40 teenagers in London and Birmingham, as well as expert roundtables with teachers and other youth work professionals . Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) also used innovative methods to analyse the dynamics and contents of ‘trolling’ attacks on Twitter.

Demos’ focus groups found that young people are often drawn into cyber bullying because they are aware that their friends can see they are being bullied or insulted online, which leaves them compelled to respond in an aggressive way.

Although the research finds that many young people are attuned to the moral implications of behaviour on social media many young people say they would take no action when they see someone they know being bullied online.

At the same time, young people also clearly use social media to build friendships and express their beliefs in more positive ways: 88 per cent of the young people surveyed have given emotional support to a friend on social networking sites, and just over half (51 per cent) have posted about ‘a political or social cause that they care about’.

Social media analysis by Demos looking at the dynamics of ‘trolling’ finds that although social media often facilitates the rapid spread of abuse online, it also gives young people the opportunity to exercise empathy and courage, by coming to the defence of the victim. Demos used the example of a ‘trolling’ attack on the British musician Lily Allen in February/March 2017:

Demos research finds that young people’s character – or the personal traits, values and skills that guide individual conduct – may be significant in determining the extent to which they engage in positive or negative behaviours online. Young people who admit to engaging in risky or unethical behaviour online are, for example, found demonstrate lower levels of moral sensitivity to others, and have lower self-reported character strengths.

Certain traits such as empathy, self-control and ‘civic mindedness’, seem particularly closely linked to different types of behaviour. Those with higher levels of empathy and self-control exhibit reduced likelihood of engaging in bullying over social media, while those with high levels of ‘civic mindedness’ are more likely to post about political or social issues.

Based on the findings of the report, Demos recommends that:

  • The Department for Education should look to rejuvenate the character agenda within Government, through a third round of Character Education Grants, this time focused on developing good character online.
  • The Government should put digital citizenship at the heart of the new Digital Charter, and use its convening power to secure meaningful cross-sectoral collaboration over digital citizenship education.
  • The Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport should work with National Citizen Service (NCS) providers to expand the digital component of the programme, to promote civic virtues and moral thinking online.
  • Schools should look to deliver Digital Citizenship education which contains a strong emphasis on the moral implications of online social networking, with a focus on participatory approaches which seek to develop students’ moral and ethical sensitivity.
  • Schools should look to develop school-home links around digital citizenship, supporting parents to close the digital literacy gap and develop effective parental mediation approaches.
  • Facebook, and other social media providers, should work with youth charities and digital citizenship campaigns to develop effective ways of disseminating information that supports good character online.
  • Social media providers should use Corporate Social Responsibility budgets to provide financial and technical support for research into ‘what works’ in promoting healthy youth engagement with social media.

Comments by participants in the focus groups:

If it was […] someone like my sister or a best friend […] then I’d obviously like, tell them about it or report it or something. But if it’s somebody that’s at my school and it has nothing to do with me then I wouldn’t take notice of them. (Girl, London)

If it’s in a group chat you feel bad because everyone is watching but you don’t want to reply, you don’t want to engage with the argument, but you feel like drawn into the argument. (Boy, Birmingham)

[Talking about Katie Hopkins] So in a way I think it’s good that people get on it and comment about it, and voice their opinions, like, she shouldn’t be able to get away with writing racist things. If someone else wrote a racist comment then they’d be in trouble. (Girl, London)

Commenting on the findings, the report’s author, Peter Harrison-Evans, Researcher at Demos said:

Our findings show that online social networking can clearly facilitate risky or negative behaviours among a substantial minority of young people. Despite this, we caution against an overly restrictive response, not least because this can be counterproductive – encouraging more covert risky behaviour or limiting engagement in the positive aspects of social media, such as relationship building, and political and civic engagement.

This research also shows the links between character traits such as empathy and self-control, and how young people think and act on social media . It’s here that we feel policy-makers, schools, and parents can make the biggest difference – empowering young people to make a positive contribution to their online communities by building their social digital skills and increasing their online moral sensitivity.

The full report, including policy recommendations, can be downloaded here.

For more information about this research project, please contact:

Eva Charalambous – Communications Manager, Demos| 020 7367 4200 | (Out of Hours) 07804252211


Survey Methodology

  • a survey of 668 16–18-year-olds, administered over Facebook, exploring youth online conduct, as well as responses to three social media scenarios, in which respondents were asked what they would do (and why they would choose that course of action) in three situations of increasing risk of harm:​
    • mild: ‘you write a post arguing for a cause you believe in. someone comments on it, aggressively disagreeing with your opinion’
    • moderate: ‘one of your classmates writes a post insulting someone else in your class, and tags you in it’
    • severe: ‘a friend shares an explicit image of someone else in your class over social media, and asks you to forward it to another friend’
  • focus groups with 40 16–18-year-olds in Birmingham and London
  • an analysis of dynamics and content of trolling attacks on Twitter by Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media
  • an expert roundtable bringing together policy experts and practitioners from character education, digital citizenship, online child safety and the tech sector

About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.

About the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

The Jubilee Centre is a pioneering interdisciplinary research centre focussing on character, virtues and values in the interest of human flourishing. The Centre promotes a moral concept of character in order to explore the importance of virtue for public and professional life. The Centre is a leading informant on policy and practice in this area and through its extensive range of projects contributes to a renewal of character virtues in both individuals and societies.

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