Insights into Digital Harm

Insights into Digital Harm: The online lives of Ne…
01 Nov 2017

This qualitative research study presents young  New Zealanders’ experiences of digital harm in their own words.

The research aims to better understand young people’s online behaviour and experiences of digital harm, provide a gendered understanding of digital harm, and identifies promising directions for providers to prevent and reduce digital harm, for parents and providers, schools and government.


The key objectives of this research were to:

  • better understand young people’s online behaviour and experiences of digital harm
  • provide a gendered understanding of digital harm
  • identify promising directions to prevent and reduce digital harm, including:

           • contributing to activities that raise awareness about digital harm and possible solutions

           • Providing an evidence base to inform government policy and service provider practice.

Key Results

This research investigates young people’s online lives. A key overarching finding is the important role the online world plays in young people’s lives.

Gendered differences

Gendered differences were apparent in how participants made sense of, and interacted with, their online worlds, their perceptions of harm, and what bothered them online. For example, girls were more likely to use social media like Instagram to form or ‘curate’ their identities. Boys, on the other hand, didn’t see their online lives as important in forming their identities. Gendered differences were also apparent in the relationship between participants’ offline and online worlds. For example, conflict was more likely to escalate online for girls, while it was more likely to escalate offline for boys. This tallies with the finding that there was a slightly greater disconnect between girls’ online and offline lives, compared to boys. In terms of harm, girls were more likely to discuss sexual harassment than boys. Girls reported being more ‘invested’ and therefore more at risk of harm; were less likely to participate in ‘roasting’ than boys, but were more likely to receive unwanted nude images of boys. Images of girls were more likely to be shared by boys while girls were more likely to delete such images of boys’.

No gendered differences

Girls and boys both said that they felt in control of their online lives and regard themselves as competent users of online technology (this included activity that occurs primarily on the internet, including digital communication, viewing content, uploading content, and engaging with content). However, they feel they do not have an accurate understanding of what happens to their information and online content, and initially said they are not concerned by this gap in their knowledge. They said that things do not often get out of hand, yet they all appeared to know someone who had suffered severely from digital harm, and discussed the connections between digital harm, mental health, and suicide. This tension will be further investigated in the Ministry and Netsafe’s second phase of research.

Little formal help or support

Participants felt there was little useful formal help or support in place. They also reported that there were a number of barriers to seeking help, including their own reluctance to seek help in case they exposed their own behaviours.

How girls and boys help themselves and each other

Girls and boys also talked about their self-directed approaches to help including, for example, being careful about uploading content, and being aware of who they are engaging with online. They reported that they would go to friends for support, but not usually adults for fear of getting in trouble. Participants see themselves as developing young adults who want tools to help them help themselves as well as their friends. They want to be seen as able to cope in the online environment.

Suggestions for prevention

Participants’ ideas about solutions can be placed into two prevention-focused themes:

  • a whole-person theme, which focuses on building and developing the young person’s understanding of respectful relationships and concepts like consent
  • an online safety theme, which focuses on the more technical ways young people can use to keep themselves safer online.

This suggests that effective responses to digital harm need to consider and include as appropriate both themes. Participants indicated that prevention must begin early; for example, with 11- and 12-year-olds, or even younger, as digital technologies are introduced in learning. While whole-person education could be led or supported by adults, participants said that online safety would be best led by someone who is young (aged 16-25), considered by the young people to be relatable and engaging, and at least as expert online as themselves.

Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018