‘Young people in Belgium regularly commit and fall victim to online violence’

Study shows young people do not know how to respond or where to find support

Researchers from the University of Antwerp, UCLouvain and the Université Saint-Louis - Bruxelles asked 2,819 Belgians between the ages of 15 and 25 about online hate speech and the distribution of nude images. Young people indicate they think this kind of conduct is harmful, but that they do regularly fall victim to it or engage in it. Victims do not seek sufficient help from adults or aid organisations. The researchers are calling for education and the media to pay more attention to the impact of this online violence and how to respond to incidents of this nature.

Many news items and previous studies had already made clear that online violence is common amongst young people. As part of the @ntidote-project, researchers from the University of Antwerp, UCLouvain and the Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles conducted the largest-ever survey amongst Belgians between the ages of 15 and 25 to determine how often this type of violence occurs and how young people respond to it.

This survey amongst a diverse population of 2,819 young Belgians shows that young people are frequent victims and perpetrators of online violence.

·       One in three young people aged between 15 and 25 has been the victim of online hate speech or the distribution of nude images at one time or other.

·       Young people with different nationalities or ethnic-cultural backgrounds are more frequently subjected to online hate speech. 

·       Members of the LGTBQI+ community have a significantly higher chance of being the victim of hate speech based on gender or sexual orientation.

·       One in five young people has spread hate speech and one in three young people has distributed a nude photo without permission of the person in the image.

·       Boys are twice as likely to distribute nude images than girls. When it comes to spreading hate speech, there is no significant difference between boys and girls.

·       Young people with different nationalities or ethnic-cultural backgrounds indicated having distributed nude images without permission significantly more often.

·       Boys of legal age (aged 18 to 25) are significantly more likely to be a victim or a perpetrator than boys who are minors (aged 15 to 17), both when it comes to online hate speech and distribution of nude images without permission.

Young people do not know where to turn when faced with online violence

The @ntidote study shows that online violence is common amongst young people, but that they are also aware of its serious impact: approximately 7 in 10 say they believe spreading hate speech and distributing nude images without permission is harmful. Young people think the best punishments for this kind of conduct would be taking a course on online violence, paying damages to the victim and/or paying a fine.

Having said that, if they fall victim to this conduct, young people do not know where to turn. They indicate they feel lonely, angry or helpless, but only five per cent went to the police and fewer than five per cent called on aid organisations. Young people first and foremost talk about incidents to their friends (27.7% for hate speech & 30% for nude images), with their parents (13.3% for hate speech & 26.8% for nude images) in second place and teachers (8.4% for hate speech & 18.4% for nude images) in third. However, a sizeable percentage of young people (26.2% for hate speech & 17.4% for nude images) does not talk to anyone.

‘This study shows that young people in Belgium are often victims but also perpetrators of online violence. And yet, they don’t know how to deal with it or whom to turn to. More space should therefore be created both in education and in the media for information about online boundaries, the impact of this conduct on young people and what you should do if you’re a victim or witness,’ says Professor Michel Walrave (UAntwerp), who coordinates the project.  

The survey was supplemented by in-depth interviews with young people. ‘These revealed that adolescents and young adults see “online violence” as something that goes beyond illegal online conduct, for example considering fat-shaming as a type of hate speech. That’s why we think “young” voices should be included in the development of solutions for online violence,’ says Professor Cécile Mathys (UCLouvain).

Few criminal complaints and little persecution for online violence

The study also looked into what happens if a criminal complaint is filed. A survey of three prosecutors’ offices and three courts across the country showed that for the period of 2016 to 2021, only 193 criminal complaints on online hate speech and 424 on non-consensual distribution of nude images had been filed. This very limited number of complaints is in stark contrast with the prevalence of online violence amongst young people.

The vast majority of these complaints is dismissed. For hate speech, only one in six cases went to court. For non-consensual distribution, this was five in a hundred cases. When it comes to non-consensual distribution of nude images, it turns out that criminal complaints are mostly filed in case the victim is also being blackmailed (sextortion) or in the context of domestic violence and stalking.

‘The study not only shows that the threshold to file a complaint is very high, but also that whenever a complaint is filed, there are too many obstacles in getting the case to court. This may obviously make victims even more hesitant to go to the police,’ states Professor Catherine Van de Heyning (UAntwerp).

Social media do too little

The @ntidote project also investigated the role of social media and moderators. The study drew several noteworthy conclusions:

·       Whereas the publicly available terms and conditions of social media are non-committal and vague about what is and is not allowed on the platform, internally moderators are working with an exhaustive document that leaves as little room for interpretation as possible.

·       Moderation of online content on social media is not very transparent for users. This should change owing to new European legislation that recently took effect (Digital Services Act).

·       Social media companies expect moderators to be very discrete, making most of these moderators hesitant to participate in the study.

·       Social media companies increasingly use artificial intelligence to proactively moderate content on their platform.

‘Social media companies do not always align their policy with users’ locations. What’s more, the manner in which this policy comes about and evolves isn’t very clear,’ Professor Vanessa Franssen (UCLouvain) adds. ‘If national policymakers want to set clearer boundaries for what’s acceptable on social media, this will have to be done at the European Union level.’


The @ntidote-project was funded by BELSPO (Federal Public Planning Service Science Policy) and carried out by Professor Michel Walrave (University of Antwerp), Professor Catherine Van de Heyning (University of Antwerp), Professor Cécile Mathys (UCLouvain), Professor Vanessa Franssen (UCLouvain), Professor Jogchum Vrielink (Université Saint-Louis - Bruxelles), Professor Mona Giacometti (University of Antwerp), Aurélie Gilen (University of Antwerp) and Océane Gagni (UCLouvain).