Nearly half of youth and children in Finland have recently faced some form of hate speech online, according to a European survey by EU Kids Online, a research network funded by a European Commission programme promoting an improved internet for kids.
The organisation's stated aim is to "coordinate and stimulate investigation into the way children use new media."
Research for the survey in Finland was led by Tampere university professor of media education Sirkku Kotilainen. EU Kids Online examined the internet experiences of young people from 14 different countries, including Finland.
Kotilainen was also involved the last time the survey was carried out in 2010.
"Back then we did not look at the hate speech that children and young people encountered [online] because it wasn't fully recognised the way it is now," Kotilainen said.
She was surprised by the kids' answers to the survey, saying that an unexpected number of them said they'd been the targets of hateful messages or comments.
Surprising figures and reactions
Kotilainen said she was also surprised by the many kids who said they wanted to see a change in the tone of online discourse.
"Kids do not think aggression and hate speech on the internet is right, and they're saying 'no' to it. They want to see the situation change. It is such a strong message from young people that political decision-makers should stand up and listen to them," Kotilainen declared.
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Around 1,300 kids between the ages of nine to 17 in Finland participated in the EU Kids Online study.
However, a precise definition of hate speech was not provided by the survey itself. Instead, the young respondents themselves described what kinds of behaviours they encountered online.
Many of the respondents said they had received derogatory comments about things like their appearance, ethnic background, sexual orientation or disabilities.
Kotilainen noted that even though people in Finland have the right to free speech, there are laws on the books prohibiting defamation.
"Even though defamation is illegal, it does happen in online conversations without legal repercussions," she said, noting that Finland should come to agreement on a precise, legal definition of hate speech in order to prevent it, as the term is still used very broadly.
5% said they've bullied others
The professor said more research is needed, but above all, more public debate on the matter of hate speech is needed. She said that media education should be a central part of eventual government plans to eradicate hate speech.
While nearly half of the young respondents in Finland said they had been the targets of online hate speech and bullying, five percent admitted they'd also been online bullies themselves.
Additionally, just 20 percent of the kids said they had discussed how to use the internet safely with their parents, while less than seven percent said their parents had given them guidance in securely navigating the web.
Roughly 15 percent of the youngsters said their parents regulated their overall internet use.
"In order to keep your child safe online, you need to talk about it in daily life. Parents need to be interested in what their kids do - and where they go - online. It's useless to tell older kids about the risks of the internet - they've already come across it themselves," Kotilainen said.