“Hong Kong Kids Online” survey findings reveal 40% teenagers exposed to unwelcomed sexual content or requests, 1 in 5 teenagers experienced cyberbullying

With increasing amounts of time spent online, young people are at greater risk in the digital world. A research team at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration of the University of Hong Kong was commissioned by Save the Children Hong Kong to conduct the study “Hong Kong Kids Online” in primary and secondary schools from 2020 to 2021 to better identify the risks that young people are exposed to online and better understand the factors that influence their vulnerability and protection. The Hong Kong Kids Online study includes survey responses from over 1,300 children and teenagers from different socio-economic backgrounds and ages ranging from 8-17, as well as in-depth group interviews with secondary school students. The findings indicate that teenagers face significant online safety risks, and that there is an immediate need for parents, schools and the government to do more to help children keep themselves safe online and to limit the online safety risks faced by the young generation.

Online sexual abuse and harassment 
Teenager sexual abuse is happening twice as often in the virtual world compared to the physical world. The study results show that 4 out of every 10 secondary school students have had at least one unwanted online sexual content exposure, solicitation, or experience in the last 12 months, which equates to over 130,000 Hong Kong secondary school students getting virtually “flashed” or sexually harassed at least once in the last year. 1 in 20 teenagers in Hong Kong experienced sexual harassment in the form of unwanted requests for sexual photos of themselves and 1 in 10 experienced it as other unwanted requests for sexual information about themselves. 1 in 20 teenagers in Hong Kong faced the worst kinds of online sexual abuse, being pressured into some kind of sexual acts over the Internet – either by peers or adults. 28% of students taking our survey reported that something that happened online in the past year had made them uncomfortable, scared, or like they felt they shouldn’t have seen it – and about half of those children saying they felt this way once or twice in the past year but some saying they felt this distress every day.

Teenagers who experience abuse or neglect in real life are at much greater risk of being re-victimised online than their peers and are 4 times more likely to face unwanted online sexual experiences on average. Lonely teenagers and those more dependent on the internet for socializing were also at significantly greater risk.

Cyberbullying
According to the findings, 1 in 5 teenagers in Hong Kong have experienced cyberbullying in the last year. There are various sorts of online bullying, including posting offensive photos and messages online, excluding individuals from online communities, and misusing another person’s photos or identity without consent. Online bullying is particularly hurtful because of the publicity and the ease with which it can be perpetuated for long periods of time. This is in part because information and images used for bullying that is put on the web is often impossible to remove. Young people in Hong Kong are equally likely to experience cyberbullying as they are to experience bullying in real life.

Ms. Carol Szeto, CEO of Save the Children Hong Kong, expressed that “It is important to recognise that online life is a part of real life, and we must not underestimate the risks and impacts of online abuse and harassment on children. Both online sexual harassment and bullying can have long-term negative impacts on children’s emotional and social development as well as mental well-being, including feelings of being intimidated, shame, blamed, or guilty. We must work together to protect teenagers and children from all forms of harm.”

Guardians in the digital world
Parents play an important role in child protection in the digital world. The study shows that 27% of teenagers said their parents never talk to them about things that happen online that upset them. The findings also reflect that teenagers of parents who more often encourage their child to explore the internet and suggest ways for their child to stay safe on the internet face less unwanted online sexual experiences on average. Support from teachers and schools is also essential in protecting young people online. Students who report that their school or teachers regularly guide them in internet education appear to face unwanted online sexual experiences, the worst forms of online child sexual abuse, and cyberbullying less commonly. Students from the focus groups also made suggestions for the government to create a safe online environment for young people while allowing them to learn and express themselves.

Dr. Clifton Emery, lead researcher of the study and associate professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong said: “This is the first study of online victimization and offline maltreatment involving a random sample of Hong Kong secondary students. It tells us that online victimization of teenagers in Hong Kong is a serious problem and that this problem is strongly related to child neglect. But it also tells us even in the face of these problems, there are things schools, parents, and policymakers can do to effectively protect teenagers and promote their healthy use of the internet in Hong Kong. “

Recommendations
Save the Children urges all stakeholders to come together to create a safe online environment for youngsters. It is crucial to ensure the law, policies, and practice can create an environment that empowers and protects young people so they can realise the benefits of the digital environment. The organisation encourages relevant authorities to establish digital inclusion policies that ensure all youngsters have equal and effective access to the digital environment meaningfully for them. Save the Children also proposes a new role of child online safety commissioner and an independent body on eSafety be created for Hong Kong. These offices should coordinate a child-friendly help-seeking and complaint mechanism for cyberbullying, online child sexual exploitation, and abuse and inform and create regulations, guidelines and public resources for safety in the digital world. The organisation also recommends the government to provide adequate training to teachers and social workers with knowledge of identifying, intervening, and handling suspicious cases, and support education institutions in providing children and youngster techniques and rules to keep themselves safe online.

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