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COMDSGN: Risks and Harm of the Internet

Risk does not necessarily result in harm, as reported by children. Children who use the internet were asked if they had encountered a range of online risks and, then, if they had been bothered by this, where ‘bothered’ was defined as something that “made you feel uncomfortable, upset, or feel that you shouldn’t have seen it.” Findings vary by child (e.g. age, gender), country and risk type, so generalisations should be treated with caution.

  •  12% of European 9-16 year olds say that they have been bothered or upset by something on the internet. This includes 9% of 9-10 year olds. However, most children do not report being bothered or upset by going online.

  •  Risks are not necessarily experienced by children as upsetting or harmful. For example, seeing sexual images and receiving sexual messages online are encountered by one in eight children but they are generally not experienced as harmful except by a few of the children who are exposed to them.

  •  By contrast, being bullied online by receiving nasty or hurtful messages is relatively uncommon, experienced by one in twenty children, but it is the risk most likely to upset children.

  •  Further, only 1 in 12 children have met an online contact offline, and also this risk rarely has a harmful consequence, according to children.

  •  Boys, especially teenagers, are more exposed to sexual images online, while teenage girls are slightly more likely to receive nasty or hurtful messages online. However, girls are generally more likely to be upset by the risks they experience.

  •  The survey asked about a range of risks, as detailed in what follows. Looking across all these risks, 41% of European 9-16 year olds have encountered one or more of these risks.

  •  Risks increase with age: 14% 9-10 year olds have encountered one or more of the risks asked about, rising to 33% 11-12 year olds, 49% 13-14 year olds and 63% 15-16 year olds.

  • 14% of 9-16 year olds have in the past 12 months seen images online that are “obviously sexual – for example, showing people naked or people having sex.”

Of those who have seen sexual or pornographic images online, one in three were bothered by the experience and, of those, half (i.e. one sixth of those exposed to sexual images or around 2% of all children) were either fairly or very upset by what they saw.

- Looking across all media, 23% of children have seen sexual or pornographic content in the past 12 months – with the internet now as common a source of pornography as television, film and video.

- Older teenagers are four times more likely than the youngest children to have seen pornography online or offline and the sexual images they have seen online are more explicit. But, younger children are more bothered or upset by sexual images online than teenagers.

- 53% of those who had been bothered by seeing sexual images online told someone about this the last time it happened – 33% told a friend, 25% told a parent. However, 25% simply stopped using the internet for a while and few changed their filter or contact settings.


In relation to online bullying, 6% of 9-16 year olds have been sent nasty or hurtful messages online, and 3% have sent such messages to others. Over half of those who received bullying messages were fairly or very upset.

- Since 19% have been bullied either online or offline (compared with 6% online), and 12% have bullied someone else either online or offline (compared with 3% online), it seems more bullying occurs offline than online.

- Most children who had received nasty or hurtful messages online called on social support: a quarter had not told anyone. Six in ten also used online strategies – deleting hurtful messages or blocking the bully; this last strategy was seen by children as effective. 


15% of 11-16 year olds have received peer to peer “sexual messages or images ...[meaning] talk about having sex or images of people naked or having sex,” and 3% say they have sent or posted such messages.

  •  Of those who have received such messages, nearly one quarter were been bothered by this. Further, of those who have been bothered, nearly half were fairly or very upset. So, overall, one eighth of those who received such messages, or nearly 2% of all children, have been fairly or very upset by sexual messaging.

  •  Among those who had been bothered by ‘sexting’, about four in ten blocked the person who sent the messages (40%) and/or deleted the unwanted sexual messages (38%). In most cases, the child said that this action helped the situation. Such constructive coping responses could be encouraged among more children.

    Meeting online contacts offline

  •  The most common risky activity reported by children online is communicating with new people not met face-to-face. 30% of European children aged 9-16 who use the internet have communicated in the past with someone they have not met face-to-face before, an activity that may be risky but may also be fun.

  •  It is more rare for children to meet a new online contact offline. 9% of children have met an online contact offline in the past year. 1% of all children (or one in nine of those who went to a meeting) have been bothered by such a meeting.

  •  Although 9-10 year olds are the least likely to have met an online contact offline, they are most likely to have been bothered by what happened (31% of those who had been to such a meeting).

    Other risks

The second most common risk is exposure to potentially harmful user-generated content. 21% of 11-16 year olds have been exposed to one or more types of potentially harmful user- generated content: hate (12%), pro-anorexia (10%), self-harm (7%), drug-taking (7%) or suicide (5%).

  •  9% of 11-16 year olds have had their personal data misused – abuse of the child’s password (7%) or their personal information (4%), or they have been cheated of their money online (1%).

  •  30% of 11-16 year olds report one or more experiences linked to excessive internet use ‘fairly’ or ‘very often’ (e.g. neglecting friends, schoolwork or sleep). 

 Differences across countries

Comparing across countries, encounters with one or more online risks include around six in ten children in Estonia, Lithuania, Norway, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Lower incidence of risk is found in Portugal, Italy and Turkey.

- Children are more likely to say they have been bothered or upset by something on the internet in Denmark (28%), Estonia (25%), Norway and Sweden (23%) and Romania (21%); they are less likely to say this in Italy (6%), Portugal (7%) and Germany (8%).

- The more children in a country use the internet daily, the more those children have encountered one or more risks. However, more use also brings more opportunities and, no doubt, more benefits.

- The greatest range of activities online is also claimed by children in Lithuania, the Czech Republic Estonia, France and Sweden, while the least are undertaken in Ireland and then Turkey. In other words, internet use brings both risks and opportunities, and the line between them is not easy to draw. 

(Source: Risks and Safety on the internet: The perspective of European Children)

Denz Jovelle is an adventure-seeker Filipino from Manila but currently residing in London, United Kingdom. She is obsessed with Fashion, Beauty and Travel, a passion embedded from her appreciation for art and technology. Welcome to her Digital Diary where you can see all her life experiences in this idyllic world.

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