They’re young, often very young; they spend a good portion of their time online on social networks and, according to a recent study by four Italian universities, they’re dangerously unfamiliar with the basic knowledge needed to defend themselves against the risks of cyber-bullying or malicious advances.
If online safety entails fighting cyber-bullying, the data provided in the study by Federico II University in Naples, Sapienza University and LUMSA University in Rome, and Cattolica University in Milan is merciless in painting a picture that’s worrisome, to say the least. Researchers from the four universities interviewed 1,500 teens from the three most populous regions in Italy (Lombardy, Lazio, and Campania), discovering that cases of cyber-bullying are much more widespread than one might think.
In fact, almost 30% (27.8%) of the teens questioned claimed that they had undergone some form of online bullying over the past year, while 20% said that they had received messages of a sexual nature and 5% had discovered an obviously illegitimate duplicate of their own social media profile. In 13.6% of the cases, teens claimed they had found photos online that they did not want to be made public.
The majority of the abuse (39.6%) occurred on Facebook, the interviewees said, while the rest took place in WhatsApp chats (31.7%) and directly through calls and texts on their cell phones (14.3%). It seems that Instagram is the network least exposed to the issue, with only 8.1% of cyber-bullying victims.
Social media users, especially the younger ones, are not aware of what “opsec” (Operations Security) means: 40.3% of teens have a public social profile, which means that it’s accessible to anyone, and only 57% have it set to private, meaning it is only visible to their contacts and not to strangers.
Virtual bullying and abuse, blackmail, personal data theft, identity theft, and more: the young Italians examined in the study are exposed to serious risks with potentially life-long consequences (in the event sensitive data is stolen). There’s still a lot to do in terms of prevention –and especially education– for these young netizens, who are unaware of what it means to lose control of their own “virtual” identity.
Something, however, is stirring: a good chunk of users (60.4%) have already implemented the most frequent and immediate solution, that is deleting unwelcome or clearly malicious “friends” and contacts; some (36.2%) have refrained from making information public that could damage their image; others (25.1%) have used codes in their messages that are only comprehensible to their real, non-virtual friends. Even teachers play a significant role: advising students, for example, how to behave with their online contacts (32% already do so) or during incidents that may unsettle or bother them (32.7%).