Are young people free to be themselves online?
February 11th 2020
Research finds that being online is both liberating and limiting for children
New research from the UK Safer Internet Centre reveals young people’s online experiences are an essential part of who they are offline, with 38% saying it’s easier to be themselves online than offline
- The internet is creating an informed and inspired generation that is taking action
- But some feel pressure to shape their online identity for others – 62% are careful about what they share because they’ve seen people be mean
- Certain groups are being targeted with identity-based hate
- UKSIC call on people to start conversations with young people about online identity
- Research released by the UK Safer Internet Centre, official co-ordinators of Safer Internet Day, as part of this year’s campaign with over 1600 organisations coming together to support the day
The research marks Safer Internet Day, which will see millions of young people, schools, and organisations across the UK explore online safety and the theme of ‘free to be me’.
It comes as over 1,600 supporters in the UK, including schools, charities, police services, industry bodies, businesses, Government ministers, Premier League football clubs and celebrities such as Natasha Devon, Georgie Barrat, Jeremy Gilley and James McVey, join young people to ignite conversations and host events that promote the safe, responsible and positive use of technology.
Online experiences essential to young people’s identities
Almost half (49%) of young people aged 8-17 said that what they do and see online contributes to their identity, making up an essential part of who they are offline. 54% admit they would feel lost, confused, or as if they’d lost a part of themselves if their online accounts were taken away. 38% said it was easier to be themselves online than offline, seeing it as a safe space to explore and grow.
Through support and access to information, young people are using the internet to understand their identity. Because of the internet, 51% have felt better emotionally or less alone, 47% have gained confidence to be themselves offline, and 31% have found support they couldn’t find offline. It also plays a crucial role in building acceptance of others’ identities, as 46% say they understand other people’s identities better because of things they’ve seen online.
Having a voice and creating change
Online experiences are informing and inspiring a generation, with 34% of 8-17s saying that, in the last month, the internet has inspired them to take action about a cause. 43% say it makes them feel their voices matter and over half (52%) have sent a supportive message to someone who was being bullied because they are seen as ‘different’.
How free are young people to be themselves online?
Young people are using the internet to explore and creatively shape their identities. 61% say it’s important that platforms let them experiment with identity and 76% believe that, when creating online personas, it’s important that it is fun. When considering what makes up an online identity, 66% say it’s their own thoughts and ideas, showing young people are feeling empowered to shape their own identity.
However, external pressures exist. Nearly half (47%) think it’s important to ‘fit in’ online and 61% think the internet puts pressure on people to come across as perfect. 70% of young people say the internet makes it easy for people to be mean and 62% are careful about what they share because they’ve seen people be mean.
Almost a third of young people have created more than one account on the same platform, with many doing this to curate their identity in positive and creative ways. However, 2 in 5 (40%) are doing so in order to change how they are seen online and 36% because someone had been mean to them.
How free are different communities?
The research draws on the experiences of different groups of young people, including disabled, BAME, or LGBT+ young people, revealing how much experiences can vary. 54% of disabled young people said it was easier to be themselves online than offline, compared with 38% of non-disabled young people; over a half (52%) also said in the last month they have found people like them they couldn’t find offline. Disabled (47%) and BAME young people (43%) are also more likely to be inspired by the internet to take action about a cause in comparison to 34% overall.
Some of these groups of young people are also being targeted disproportionately. A quarter (25%) of 13-17-year olds say they have been targeted with online hate in the last month because of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, disability or gender identity, with 45% of disabled teens and 32% of BAME teens reporting this.
The research also reveals parents and carers are concerned about their children’s online experiences, with 65% of parents worrying that the internet is a place of negativity and 39% thinking the internet has more influence on their child than they do. Yet children are wanting to reach out to their parents, with over half (51%) wanting to talk to them about their online identities.
Will Gardner OBE, Director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, says: “The internet is primarily a place of positivity for young people. Whether being inspired to be the next campaigner, supporter or friend – it’s a place for them to find their voice, explore their identities, and support each other. “We must help young people on this journey by acknowledging the pressures, challenges and limits the internet also brings. We can do this by listening to them and starting conversations about our online lives. We know talking works; as a result of Safer Internet Day last year, 78% of young people felt more confident about what to do if they were worried about something online. “It is so important for all of us - adults, businesses, and government – to support young people to harness the internet for good and make it a place where everyone is free to be themselves.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Used safely, the internet can play an important role in young people’s development. But social media companies must be held accountable for protecting their users from harms on their platforms, including grooming, hate crime, and terrorist content. That is exactly why we are working on legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. We thank the UK Safer Internet Centre for their vital work on this issue and fully support Safer Internet Day.”
School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said: “The internet is an incredible tool; it gives young people a wealth of knowledge and opportunity at their fingertips. But at the same time it adds new pressures on young people in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a few years ago. It’s important that we provide pupils with the knowledge and information they need to seize those opportunities but also recognise the challenges, which is why the online safety aspect of our new Relationship, Sex and Health Education is key.”
The UK Safer Internet Centre (comprising Childnet, Internet Watch Foundation and SWGfL) has worked with over 40 of its Digital Leaders to create the Young People’s Charter that it will put to the government, calling on them to:
- Provide good quality education about the internet
- Protect equal rights and opportunities online and offline
- Establish better protection online and industry accountability
- Give young people the space and power to create change
The Centre has developed educational resources to equip parents, schools and other members of the children’s workforce with tools to support young people this Safer Internet Day, and beyond.