Researchers at the University of Antwerp have studied our relationship with digital media for years now. The methods used by online ads, the consequences of cyberbullying, the dangers of sexting… Heidi Vandebosch and Michel Walrave (Faculty of Social Sciences) do everything in their power to safeguard our mental health online.
Please meet MIOS
You’re scrolling through Instagram and see nothing but perfect pictures of perfect people on perfect holiday destinations… while you’re lying on your couch in your PJs. If you recognise this feeling, you’ll also be aware that social media can have an impact on your mental health. This impact is one of the things MIOS (Media & ICT in Organisations and Society) researches. ‘Do we communicate differently on Messenger? How do young people use Snapchat? What risks does the internet pose to our mental health? Those are the kinds of questions MIOS addresses,’ Walrave explains.
‘In addition, MIOS also translates its knowledge into practice,’ Vandebosch adds, ‘for example in the form of tools for education on media literacy. Using several campaigns and a podcast, amongst other things, MIOS wants to inform and advise young people, parents and teachers on themes such as cyberbullying, online privacy and gaming.’
‘And as children are younger and younger when they find their way onto the internet, it’s increasingly important to guide them in their first steps. One thing we did in this respect is contribute to the book Alles over sociale media (Everything about social media), which familiarises children with the world of social media in an accessible way.’
Forbid sexting? Never!
In recent years, sending sexual messages or pictures via social media has steadily gained popularity. Although sexting is often innocent, the consequences of abuse are anything but. Images that are distributed without permission, pictures used to blackmail someone, forced sexting… Because of all this, the University of Antwerp wants to take a leading role in making sexting safer.
To this end, MIOS worked together with Sensoa, Pimento, Child Focus, Mediawijs and other partners to set up a website on sexting. ‘Here, young people can learn about the risks involved in sexting and about ways to text more safely. Teachers and parents can also contact Mediawijs and MIOS for more information and tools on sexting,’ says Walrave. ‘This way, MIOS is reaching more and more young people and adults as part of our efforts to reduce the chance of sexting ending badly.’
No to cyberbullying
MIOS also conducts research on cyberbullying. ‘This is a type of online aggression, with the clear intent of harming or hurting someone,’ Vandebosch explains. ‘Such aggression quickly escalates, firstly because a large audience is watching, and secondly because of frequent repetition. MIOS also researches online hate speech.’
Through a special website, MIOS is reaching more and more young people and adults as part of our efforts to reduce the chance of sexting ending badly.
You can partially reduce the risk of cyberbullying, for instance by deciding yourself whom to befriend and share information with, instead of having everything public. ‘When young people are confronted with cyberbullying, they generally try to solve this themselves through the means made available to them by social media: the report button,’ says Vandebosch. ‘In principle, social media companies have to follow up on those complaints, but sadly that doesn’t always happen.’
Technology can also be used as a positive way of fighting cyberbullying and online hate speech. Textgain, a UAntwerp spin-off, is working on computer linguistics and started research into automatically detecting hate speech on social media, amongst other things. This is rather complex, however, because swear words such as bitch can also be used amicably. And some types of cyberbullying are so subtle that they can stay under the radar of detection systems.
So how best to tackle cyberbullying? ‘Preventing, detecting and tackling cyberbullying isn’t that easy,’ says Vandebosch. ‘There are many different parties that must be involved: schools, parents, the social media platforms themselves… And when things get really serious, even the police and the court.’ So is there anything that we can do? ‘Express an interest in the media use of your child or pupil, don’t make it into a taboo,’ Vandebosch advises. ‘When someone is being cyberbullied, it’s important to collect evidence using screenshots. These will be required if you want to press charges. And it’s also always good to block the cyber bully on social media and to change your password.’
If you have a visual memory, why not have a look at this short video on the research (in Dutch)?