Building Collective Resilience to Address Harmful Content Online


By Samantha McAleese and Matthew Johnson, MediaSmarts

New research from MediaSmarts, Canada’s centre for digital media literacy, provides insight into how often young Canadians encounter harmful content online and how they tend to respond to it. The report is the second in a series of reports in the latest phase of Young Canadians in a Wireless World, a national survey of over one thousand youth ages 9 to 17. 

First, what do we mean by harmful content? 

In the survey, we asked young people about the content they see or receive in online spaces that causes them harm or discomfort. Specifically, we asked older youth (participants in grades 7 to 11) questions about pornography and the racist and sexist content they see on various platforms. The responses to these questions add to our understanding of how this content circulates online, how young people respond, and where they require additional support and resources. 

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When it comes to pornography, we note that more youth try to avoid seeing this content online (42%) than those who actively look for it (22%). Furthermore, 32% of young Canadians say they see pornography online without looking for it when it pops up on the websites they visit and the search engines they use or when a friend shares it with them without their consent.

Next, we learned that almost half (47%) of participants see racist or sexist content online at least once a week. Additional analysis tells us that LGBTQ+ youth and youth with a disability are more likely to see this harmful content in online spaces. 

While most youth (88%) agree that it is important to speak up when they see racist or sexist content online, many (58%) feel they do not know what to say. This uncertainty is consistent with our previous qualitative research study on online hate and demonstrates a need for more guidance and support in navigating harmful content online. Also, compared to phase three of Young Canadians (completed in 2013), youth in this most recent phase are more likely to agree that it is important to say something about racist or sexist content so that people know it is wrong. 

Overall, young people across Canada have increased awareness and concern about the impacts of racist and sexist content online and an increased desire to speak out about the regularity with which they see such harmful content. Additionally, most youth (81%) agree that tech companies should do more to stop racist and sexist things from being posted or shared online. 

In the report, we talk about these findings through the lens of collective resilience: the ability of a community or group of people to collectively respond to or recover from changing and sometimes stressful or adverse environments. In the context of the online world, building collective resilience can help ensure that young people draw strength and support from the people around them, so they are better prepared to react and respond to the problems they encounter in online spaces.

As we emphasize in much of our recent research with young Canadians, this collective or communal form of resilience – as opposed to the individual resilience typically mobilized in the literature on child and youth development – is more conducive to building and retaining the skills, knowledge, competence, and confidence required to respond to ever-changing digital environments.

Communicating clear household rules is one way to build this resilience. For example, while having a rule around internet usage (like what sites your children can or cannot visit) won’t necessarily impact what content young people see online, it does seem to impact how they respond to it. More specifically, we found that young people with a household rule about treating people with respect are more likely to agree that it is important to speak out when they see racist and sexist content online. 

Supervision can also play a role here. We found that youth ages 12 to 13 who are usually with an adult when they go online are more likely to agree that it is important to speak up about racist and sexist content and are more likely to tell an adult when they see that kind of content\.

Essentially, when young people have trusted adults in their lives who take an interest in what they are doing and seeing online, it provides a layer of safety and support needed to navigate the problems they might experience. The good news is that 86% of youth who participated in the survey said they have people in their lives who can help them solve online problems. 

Access to digital media literacy education also plays a role in building collective resilience when addressing the problems and harms people face in online spaces. Within the report, we highlight that youth are interested in learning more about how to be safe online, report inappropriate behaviour or content, and deal with hateful, racist, or sexist online information. More young people (52% now compared to 39% in 2013) seem to be getting more support from their parents or guardians in this regard. 

In phase three of Young Canadians, only 9% of participants said they never learned how to respond to or navigate harmful content online – this jumped to 24% in phase four. To support the desire for more education and guidance, MediaSmarts developed My Voice is Louder Than Hate – a multimedia resource designed to empower young people to push back against hate and prejudice in their online communities. This is one of many resources that exist to support young people and the trusted adults in their lives as they navigate the digital information ecosystem and various online spaces and places. 

The data we collect through the Young Canadians in a Wireless World survey, alongside our other research projects at MediaSmarts, allows us to create and update our educational resources and supports our ongoing conversations with policy- and decision-makers who hold power to make the online world safer for everyone. This research also helps illuminate not just the struggles that young people face online but where they draw strength and support to help them navigate the problems that come with being online. 

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Sidebar Content: Keeping Your Kids Safe from Harmful Online Content

Worried about what your kids might see online? Here are some tips to keep them safe – and to help them deal with harmful or discomforting content if they do see it.

Set and discuss household rules. Clearly explain how you expect your kids to behave when they’re online. The most important rule? Tell them to come right to you if anything goes wrong – and promise that you won’t get mad at them if they do.

Use parental controls – and teach kids to filter for themselves. Operating systems, search engines, social networks, games, and browsers all have controls that help you filter out inappropriate content (you can learn more about how to use them here: mediasmarts.ca/using-parental-controls-tip-sheet). Kids want to learn how to control what they see, too: almost twice as many say they take steps to avoid seeing pornography as look for it on purpose.

Co-view with your kids. Have an ongoing conversation about the media that they’re watching, playing, and participating in. Use MediaSmarts’ tip sheets on topics like online hate and sexualized media to know what to say and what questions to ask.

One thing you shouldn’t do? Spy on your kids. If something goes wrong, they’ll be more concerned with keeping it a secret from you than getting your help. If something has happened that makes you feel you have to watch them more closely, let them know that you’re doing it and explain why. 



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