How do adolescents see differences in online communication in supporting them to protect the health of their friends?
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The University of Queensland, Australia
Publication date: 2023-04-26
Popul. Med. 2023;5(Supplement):A1100
Background and Objective:
Friends can provide early adolescents with protection from harm. Positive support, comfort, or active efforts to prevent harm is evidenced in online bullying but also across other health behaviours. Research typically focuses on individual characteristics of protectors (e.g., empathy, confidence). Guided by a theory of online communication, we examine the features of online platforms as they might affect protecting of friends. Our objectives were to describe adolescents’ experience of online communication and how they feel it differs from face-to-face communication and explore factors they identify as increasing the likelihood of acting to protect friends from harm.

We surveyed 216 students (Mean age = 13.72, S.D.=1.2) online during school time about helping and bystander behaviour. We provided an open-ended text box to have students describe how they felt electronic, differed from face-to-face communication. We also had students rate (strongly disagree-strongly agree) whether key factors (in person and online) were associated with their intervening to stop a friends’ risky behaviour (n=13 items).

Qualitative themes of online differences included: cue absence (“can’t hug”), synchronicity (“time to respond”), permanence (“people can screenshot”), relieve social anxiety (“respond without being scared”), available (“chat anytime”), and alterations (“filters”). Quantitatively (factor analysis), two factors related to likelihood of intervening: one aligning with online experience (e.g., being recorded, followers) and another more general factor (e.g., a dangerous situation, close friends, with helpful others). Items related to getting into trouble loaded across both factors.

A large part of adolescent communication is online, including the way they protect their friends from harm. From our study, we see that adolescents identify differences with face-to-face communication and, together with understanding the characteristics of those who actively intervene to reduce friends’ harm, findings might help better provide health promotion messaging around, ‘mates looking out for mates’.