Prof. Dr. Thorsten Quandt

Challenges of communicative change - risks of young people's online use

1. media change and everyday life of young people

Children and young people experience media change in their everyday lives and constantly renegotiate it. However, they are sometimes confronted with content that is not age-appropriate - from violent videos on the web to pornography shared via WhatsApp. This leads to a high perception of risk and relevance in society, which often also bears signs of moral panic. This is because being exposed to such content does not mean that there is a certain effect - the conclusion from exposure to effect is often made prematurely. The simplistic idea assumes that, particularly in the case of young people and children, the use of an offer leads to quasi-automatic effects due to low resistance and poorly stabilised personality traits. Of course, this view is not as well documented as one would assume: the area of media pornography, for example, is nowhere near as well researched as one would expect due to public fears and the associated perception of relevance. The discussion on the effects of violence has been going on for decades - but the results are not conclusive (cf. Breuer et al. 2015).

In addition, the everyday media use of young people often follows media change more quickly than that of adults - which makes it difficult to transfer research results. We are seeing a completely different media portfolio today than just a few years ago - and this has a very clear impact on younger people. Today's generation of parents grew up primarily with newspapers, radio and television as their main media, and there were also home computers, albeit not yet networked. The situation is different for young people today: Smartphones are ubiquitous, there are a wide variety of tablet devices, young people naturally use computers and the internet, and there are a multitude of social media applications that also determine their everyday social lives. Some of these services have already disappeared again - even before the often slow research process has had a chance to look at them in depth. This is not the only reason why it is advisable to focus on the basic functions and not the respective applications. There are apps for certain communicative functions between individuals, for group exchange and coordination, for disseminating information to third parties and so on. These functions will probably not disappear, as they fulfil basic social and communicative needs - what may well disappear are individual offers and services. We need to realise this when we examine social networks (such as Facebook), for example - what is behind them, what exactly is this use about?

Current data on young people's media use is revealing, as it also shows what drives them in terms of media. The JIM Study 2014 provides a good impression here (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest 2014: 12): The media activities of young people aged 12 to 19 are characterised by new offerings that do not feature in the traditional media portfolio of the previous generation. Internet is the basis of everyday life - 81 per cent use it daily, a further 13 per cent at least weekly (ibid.). We are moving into regions of full diffusion here, where the characteristics of Internet users cannot be recognised in their generality. Only the few non-users who actively decide against such a basic condition of youthful existence can be specifically defined. Mobile phone use is also in a similar range. Television and radio are also still frequently used. Daily newspaper use, on the other hand, is marginal and ranks below ten per cent in terms of daily use - and the situation is similar for other printed media. However, you have to be careful here: This is an unfair comparison to some extent, because magazines, for example, are not media used on a daily basis - the frequency of attention and use is completely different. Nevertheless, the data indicates a massive change in usage - it takes place via other end devices and is also organised and structured very differently than was the case with previous generations of young people just a few years ago.

In fact, the changes are so rapid that even the supposedly new media are already changing again (which is why the relative term new media is not very useful and only seems appropriate when differentiating it from the traditional media portfolio that has remained stable for decades). This becomes clear in the case of Internet use - which is no longer the same for young people as it was for their parents' generation. In fact, the JIM data shows that as recently as 2012, 96 per cent of respondents used the internet via a computer and around 50 per cent via smartphones (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest 2014: 24). The internet is now used more frequently via smartphones (86 versus 82 per cent). This means that the internet is not only part of everyday life, but is actually integrated into everyday situations: During breaks in the school playground, at the bus stop, before sports, in the underground, the café, the disco - access can be established everywhere (which is definitely to be understood as two-sided).

This permanent interconnectedness leads to major challenges (Vorderer et al. 2015). Children and young people are early adopters of such technologies and forms of use. Parental and school control is often lacking because parents and teachers are not (yet) users and do not have the relevant skills (or do not want to develop them). A lack of competence is multifaceted: young people and children often lack technical skills and knowledge of innovations in their environment, as well as social skills (and needs) for use (for example in the case of social networks). Young people are therefore the media experts, especially on a technological level. At the same time, they naturally have little experience of potential social risks, if only because they have less life experience. They sometimes have completely different ideas about what constitutes authentic communication, what is trustworthy and what is not.

Developing in a media space that is thus less predetermined means that young people and children develop their own usage patterns and social rules for these technologies, largely without parental or educational intervention. For example, what is discussed in school WhatsApp groups usually remains hidden from parents and teachers - and there is often a lack of genuine interest in it. This also becomes clear in other new media areas: for example, when children and young people use video games that are inappropriate for their age, albeit with their parents' knowledge, but without them having any real awareness of the actual content, presentation methods and mechanics (as there is a lack of time and interest in the children's hobby). This can have the effect of isolating young user groups from their family environment while at the same time making them highly vulnerable to manipulation and abuse from outside. This is because there are other groups that are very interested in what children and young people do with new media. However, these are groups whose influence in children and young people's bedrooms is not desirable.

In science, there are various attempts to differentiate between such risks and problems. Of course, there is no clear, closed system - in fact, there are many manifestations of what is referred to as risky online behaviour, from cyberbullying to sexting, cyberstalking and cyberhate. These forms are sometimes very different in terms of their processes and the qualities of the risky behaviour. Risky behaviour must also be differentiated from pathological forms of use, which are dealt with under terms such as internet addiction, social media addiction or games addiction. However, risky behaviour and addiction are very different things - excessive use in particular, up to and including what is understood by pathological use or the term addiction, also refers to certain personality structures and disorders (Griffiths et al. 2015).

However, risky online behaviour can occur in a large proportion of otherwise unremarkable users. The proportions of users affected by this differ accordingly: although there are varying estimates of addictive computer and video game use, most are between one and six per cent (ibid. and Festl et al. 2013). In contrast, some forms of risky online behaviour affect 30 to 50 percent of young people in their everyday lives (see, for example, Modecki et al. 2014). It is alarming that some of these frequently occurring forms have only been researched to an unsatisfactory degree: Although many studies on cyberbullying now exist, other areas (such as cyberhate) are rarely the subject of empirical research, and in some cases only anecdotal (press) reports exist.

Two of the forms of risk (cyberbullying/cyberbullying and cyberhate) are described in more detail below - also because they can currently be regarded as particularly virulent and directly affect the everyday lives of many young people and children.
2 Cyberbullying in everyday school life

In recent years, cyberbullying has increasingly become a topic of academic research and is also the subject of public debate due to a number of tragic cases. In Germany, for example, the suicide of teenager Keanu Joel Horn following a Facebook bullying attack in 2009 attracted attention - partly because his mother took part in TV talk shows to publicly address cyberbullying as a problem. Since then, cyberbullying has been on the social agenda and is repeatedly addressed in press reports. There are also various programmes, such as Klick-Safe, which attempt to educate young people on how to use the internet safely and provide them with support options for problem situations.

However, the debate is often characterised by moral panic. In fact, there are - fortunately - only a few known suicides worldwide that can be directly attributed to cyberbullying. In this respect, various sensationalist media reports miss the real problem - because the mechanisms of action and consequences in the everyday lives of most young people are quite different. This sometimes also obscures the view of fundamental problems across the board. On average, according to a meta-study by Modecki et al. (2014), around 16 per cent of young people have experienced cyberbullying as perpetrators and 15 per cent as victims. This means that a significant proportion of young people are directly affected.

There are now quite a few research approaches and studies on cyberbullying (see Festl/ Quandt 2013, Festl et al. 2015). This highly differentiated literature provides various possible explanations for the phenomenon: on an individual level, for example, classic socio-demographics are used as an explanation - certain combinations of age and gender appear to increase the risk of perpetration and victimisation. There are also individual histories of traditional bullying that can explain bullying behaviour online. Some researchers also blame social positioning - centrality in social networks or social preferences can apparently influence bullying behaviour, and there are explanations at the class level (for example, general attitudes towards cyberbullying, bullying atmosphere).

These explanations at individual and group/social level have so far only been brought together to a limited extent. In a DFG project documented in more detail elsewhere and now completed, these two perspectives were combined and brought together as part of a holistic approach: Individual, class and socio-structural factors were taken into account (cf. Festl/Quandt 2014).

The data for this was collected in surveys at 33 schools over three waves, starting with Year 7 (average age: 14 years). The media and (cyber)bullying behaviour of around 5,500 pupils (at T1) was surveyed on site in more than 300 classes using a traditional paper-and-pencil survey. Not only were individual (psychological) profiles created; friendship networks and the social structure were also researched. This made it possible to trace class and school networks.

In such networks, perpetrators, victims and the mixed category of perpetrator-victims can be identified due to the special survey method (cf. Festl/Quandt 2013, 2014). One result of these analyses was that the perpetrators are socially integrated individuals, i.e. not outsiders, as was previously believed in some cases. It can be assumed that these are people who use their position in the social structure to exert influence on others and ultimately to further strengthen this position.
The information from the literature regarding the virulence of the problem has been confirmed: a large proportion of pupils have experienced cyberbullying. For example, 14 per cent of respondents have written offensive messages and eight per cent have forwarded private messages from others (Festl & Quandt 2014). On the other hand, things that are repeatedly discussed in public hardly ever take place: Uploading embarrassing photos and videos only affects a few per cent of young people - and therefore significantly less than one might assume from the debate in the media.

Other aspects are seen by young people as a much bigger problem - for example, being excluded from a social group. Sometimes being locked out of a WhatsApp group can be experienced as more socially destructive than posting an embarrassing photo, especially if all peer group communication takes place via this group (especially as the imagined communication in the group during one's own absence is experienced as particularly destructive). Overall, 33 per cent of respondents have experienced cyberbullying in the last year, either as a perpetrator, victim or both at the same time (Festl/Quandt 2014). This is because young people are usually not simply perpetrators or victims. There are often cascades, i.e. the victim becomes a perpetrator, then a victim again and so on.

The further detailed analyses of the study (see Festl et al. 2015) also brought interesting things to light. An analysis of the risks provided explanations at the individual and socio-structural level as well as at the school class level. However, the individual factors were significantly more influential than the structural factors. There were also some notable effects at class level. This is relevant insofar as it can be used as a basis for prevention and intervention in schools. Here, research can be directly useful for everyday school life by providing indications of productive opportunities for change. However, the study also reveals its own limitations at this point - and thus future avenues of research: For if the greater influencing factors are to be assumed to be at the individual level, research must start earlier - not just with 14-year-olds, but possibly at the age of early personality moulding.
3. young people as a target group for online propaganda and hate communication

Cyber hate must be distinguished from the cyberbullying just discussed, even if it is often confused or associated with it - because both have to do with insults and defamation via the internet. The topic is currently present in the public debate, particularly in connection with extremist communication via the internet. This is often strategically organised by groups that operate in the background and usually do not address their hate communication to individuals, but to entire population groups (even if the communication is directed at individuals). In this respect, it is a different type of communication than cyberbullying - cyberhate is planned or orchestrated, with goals that go beyond the actual hate communication. The origins of cyber hate go back to at least the 1990s, for example on the websites of the White Supremacists in the USA (Quandt/Festl 2016).

Attempts to influence the public via forms of hate communication therefore already existed (at least) two decades ago, although the spectrum is broader today, ranging from websites, forum posts and blogs to tweets and YouTube videos. Interestingly, other extremists - regardless of ideology - have also imitated the forms of hate communication used by right-wing and racist groups in the USA. There are many examples of this - whether it is xenophobic sites such as those of the PEGIDA movement or those of Islamist extremism. In order to avoid monitoring or filtering by forum operators or to comply with the framework of the respective laws, language codes are sometimes used (for example in Germany to avoid accusations of incitement to hatred). The transgressions in communication are clearly planned. The orchestration sometimes takes place in such a way that actors work together - for example, individual actors go to forums of journalistic providers (such as Spiegel Online), post messages there, and these are then supported by other actors in their own group under cover identities. Although many (journalistic) providers now filter their discussion forums due to various legal violations by users and clear indications of strategic behaviour, propagandistic hate communicators often get through with their messages en masse.

The argumentative patterns are repeated: opponents are branded as liars, falsifiers and corrupters, while the users themselves present themselves as threatened victims of these opponents. Knowledge of this threatening situation is attributed to superior or divine knowledge, which is used to expose the lies of the opponents. Exclusive access to a truth justifies this threat, as it were. This leads to a simple binary logic: them against us. The right to take extreme measures, which are seen as ideologically legitimised, is derived from oppression with simultaneous moral superiority.

Such cyberhate communications, which explicitly include (male) teenagers and young adults as the intended audience, are above all offers of identification. Young people in a phase of personal orientation are looking for ways to set themselves apart and find themselves - and this is what such groups offer: External demarcation, but internal bonding. Both right-wing and religious extremists are also concerned with involving young people and making communicative offers: they provide statements about who the young people are or who they could be, and they show them opportunities and options.

This is not being discussed so much in the current debate: People are talking about the fact that manipulation is taking place here without realising what was already wrong beforehand. The real problem is that some young people obviously prefer to turn to such offers rather than alternatives. This certainly has something to do with a lack of prospects and a lack of involvement, which should come from the centre of society. However, this is precisely where the strategies of the extremists can be broken through by providing better offers for young people and young adults and showing clear prospects that are attractive to this group.
4. solutions to the challenges faced by young people in their everyday media lives

The challenges in the everyday media lives of young people are manifold - only two of the problem areas have been addressed here. The variety of problems must be addressed with specific measures. The intuitively obvious solution is not always the right one.

In the problem areas of young people's everyday media lives, for example, increasing technical skills can help - not necessarily among pupils, however, but primarily among teachers and parents (who are often ahead of the pupils in terms of their knowledge of technologies and media offerings). Content-related and social media skills should be promoted among young people themselves, as technical skills are present there and can even contribute as a risk factor to cyberbullying, for example (see Festl et al. 2015, Festl/Quandt 2013). In this respect, the call for media literacy should not be misunderstood as a call for technological literacy, as otherwise the problems could even be exacerbated.

By improving understanding and access to young people's media worlds, communication structures that have taken on a life of their own can be broken up. An early approach is advisable here before young people's media worlds are closed off from the insights of adults (which - and this should also be mentioned here - is perfectly normal during puberty for developmental reasons). Information on risks, prevention and intervention options must also be provided at an early stage so that young people are prepared for foreseeable challenges. In addition, contact points for abuse problems are necessary, which only exist to a limited extent in schools.

Finally, consideration must also be given to whether and when intervention is necessary. The problem of cyber hate covers a broad spectrum, from counterspeech to blocking and deletion. However, it is important to act with caution here: Counterspeech often does not work because it is priced into the logic of the actors - a backlash is sometimes deliberate and follows the extremists' escalation strategy. However, deletions are also a double-edged sword, as the temporary containment of hate speech can serve as a reason for accusations of censorship and further hate speech. It is also very clear that extremism cannot be countered with harshness and further extremism. This is precisely the aim of extremists: a centrifugal drifting apart of society, its increasing fragmentation and disintegration into extreme, oppositional groups. In contrast, the centre and centripetal forces must be strengthened.

Of course, more research into the causes, usage patterns and effects is urgently needed in order to find adequate solutions to the challenges of young people's everyday media use. The steps outlined here can only be part of much more comprehensive endeavours to which science will have to devote itself in the coming years.

Further reading

    Breuer, Johannes/Vogelsang, Jens/Quandt, Thorsten/Festl, Ruth (2015): Violent video games and physical aggression: Evidence for a selection effect among adolescents. In: Psychology of Popular Media Culture No. 4 (4), pp. 305-328. doi:10.1037/ppm0000035
    Festl, Ruth/Quandt, Thorsten (2013): Social Relations and Cyberbullying: The Influence of Individual and Structural Attributes on Victimisation and Perpetration via the Internet. In: Human Communication Research No. 39 (1), pp. 101-126. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2012.01442.x
    Festl, Ruth/Quandt, Thorsten (2014): Cyberbullying at schools: A longitudinal research project. In: Discourse on Childhood and Youth Research No. 1-2014, pp. 109-114.
    Festl, Ruth/Scharkow, Michael/Quandt, Thorsten (2013): Problematic computer game use among adolescents, younger and older adults. In: Addiction No. 108 (3), pp. 592-599. doi:10.1111/add.12016
    Festl, Ruth/Scharkow, Michael/Quandt, Thorsten (2015): The individual or the group. A multilevel analysis of cyberbullying in school classes. In:Human Communication Research No. 41 (4), pp. 535-556. doi:10.1111/hcre.12056
    Griffiths, Mark D./van Rooij, Antonius J./Kardefelt-Winther, Daniel/Starcevic, Vladan/Király, Orsolya et al. (2015): Working towards an international consensus on criteria for assessing internet gaming disorder: a critical commentary on Petry et al. (2014). In: Addiction No.111 (1), pp. 167-175. doi:10.1111/add.13057
    Media Education Research Association Southwest (ed.) (2014): JIM Study 2013: Youth, Information, (Multi-)Media - Basic study on the media behaviour of 12- to 19-year-olds in Germany. Stuttgart.
    Modecki, Kathryn L./Minchin, Jeannie/Harbaugh, Allen G./Guerra, Nancy G./Runions, Kevin C. (2014): Bullying Prevalence Across Contexts: A Metaanalysis Measuring Cyber and Traditional Bullying. In: Journal of Adolescent Health No. 55 (5), pp. 602-611. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.06.007
    Quandt, Thorsten/Festl, Ruth (2016, forthcoming): Cyberhate. In: Rössler, Patrick (ed.): The international encyclopedia of media effects. Malden, Oxford, Chichester.
    Vorderer, Peter (2015): The mediatised way of life - Permanently online, pemanently connected. In: Journalism No. 60 (3), pp. 259-276. doi:10.1007/s11616-015-0239-3

Updated by: Giard