Press release

Young Belgians are often both perpetrators and victims of online


Researchers from the University of Antwerp, the University of Liège and the UCLouvain Saint-Louis Brussels surveyed 2,819 young Belgians aged 15 to 25 about online hate speech and the dissemination of sexual content (or nudes). 

If young people admit to finding these behaviors harmful, they are often the victims, if not the perpetrators. Victims do not turn often enough to adults or to services or organizations for help. The researchers recommend that more attention be paid to the consequences of online violence in education and the media, and to how to respond to incidents of this kind.

Numerous press releases and previous studies show that online violence is a common phenomenon among young people. As part of the @ntidote project, researchers from the University of Antwerp, the University of Liège and UCLouvain Saint-Louis Bruxelles carried out the largest-ever survey of young people aged 15 to 25, to determine the frequency of such incidents and how young people react to them.

The survey, carried out among a diverse group of 2819 young Belgians, revealed that, when it comes to online violence, young people are often victims as well as perpetrators.

  • One in three young people aged between 15 and 25 has already been the victim of online hate speech or the dissemination of sexual content.
  • Young people of other nationalities or from other ethnic or cultural backgrounds are more often victims of online hate speech.
  • People belonging to the LGBTQI+ community are considerably more often victims of hate speech based on their gender or sexual orientation.
  • One in five young people has been guilty of hate speech, and one in three has posted content revealing someone's intimacy without their consent.
  • Boys are twice as likely as girls to disseminate such images. On the other hand, there is no significant difference between boys and girls when it comes to disseminating hate speech.
  • Young people of other nationalities or from other ethnic or cultural backgrounds are more likely to admit to having already broadcast content revealing a person's intimacy without their consent.
  • Young adults (aged 18 to 25) are significantly more likely than minors (aged 15 to 18) to be both victims and perpetrators of online hate speech and sexual content without consent.

Young people unable to deal with online violence

The @ntidote survey shows that online violence is common among young people, but that they are aware of the seriousness of its impact: around seven out of ten young people say that sharing hateful comments and disseminating content revealing someone's privacy without their consent is harmful. Young people believe that the best way to punish this type of behavior is to ask the perpetrators to take training on online violence, and to pay damages and/or a fine.

However, when they find themselves the victims of this kind of situation, young people don't know where to turn. They report feeling alone, angry or powerless. Yet only 5% of victims turn to the police, and less than 5% seek help from a support organization. Young people talk first to their friends (27.7% in the case of hate speech and 30% in the case of non-consensual sexual content), and only then turn to their parents (13.3% in the case of hate speech and 26.8% in the case of non-consensual sexual content), before seeking help from their teachers (8.4% in the case of hate speech and 18.4% in the case of non-consensual sexual content). However, a very high proportion of young people (26.2% of victims of hate speech and 17.4% of victims of non-consensual sexual content) do not tell anyone.

"This survey shows that it's not uncommon for young Belgians to be both victims and perpetrators of online violence. Yet they don't know how to react to it, or where to turn when it happens to them. It is therefore essential to pay more attention in the media, but also in education, to the limits to be respected online, the consequences of such behavior on young people and the possible reactions as a victim or witness", explains Michel Walrave (University of Antwerp), coordinator of the project.

More in-depth interviews were also carried out with the young people. "It emerged from these interviews that teenagers and young adults have a vision of "online violence" that is not limited to prosecutable behavior: in particular, they see fat shaming as a form of hate speech. We therefore believe that the voice of young people should be taken into account when developing solutions to online violence", says Professor Cécile Mathys (Université de Liège).


Few complaints and few prosecutions for online violence

The study also looked at the follow-up to any complaints filed for online violence. The survey of the country's five public prosecutor's offices and three courts revealed that, for the period from 2016 to 2021, only 193 complaints were filed for online hate speech and 423 for non-consensual dissemination of sexual content. This very limited number of complaints contrasts sharply with the frequency of online violence among young people.

The vast majority of these complaints are dismissed. Only one hate speech case in six is brought to court. In the case of non-consensual dissemination of sexual content, this is the case for only five cases out of a hundred. The study revealed that in cases of non-consensual dissemination of nude photos, victims mainly file complaints if the photos are obtained by blackmail(sextortion) or in the context of domestic violence or harassment.

"The study shows, firstly, that it is very difficult to file a complaint and, secondly, that when a complaint is filed, there are too many obstacles preventing the case from being brought to court. This can of course further discourage victims from turning to the police," explains Professor Catherine Van de Heyning (University of Antwerp).

Social networks don't do enough

The role of social networks and moderators was also studied as part of the @ntidote project. The study revealed several interesting points :

  • While the terms and conditions available to social network users are fairly vague as to what is allowed on the platforms, moderators work internally on the basis of a much more comprehensive document leaving very little room for personal interpretation.
  • Moderation of online content on social networks is not transparent enough for users. This should change thanks to the new European regulations that recently came into force (Digital Services Act).
  • Social network companies expect their moderators to exercise great discretion, so most of them are reluctant to take part in surveys.
  • Social networking companies are increasingly deploying artificial intelligence to proactively moderate content on their platforms.

"Social networking companies don't always adapt their policies to where users are. What's more, it's not very clear how policies are established and how they evolve," adds Professor Vanessa Franssen (University of Liège). "If national policymakers want to define more clearly the limits of what is allowed on social networks, they will have to do so at European Union level. "


The @ntidote project was funded by BELSPO (Service public fédéral de programmation Politique scientifique) and led by Professor Michel Walrave (University of Antwerp), Professor Catherine Van de Heyning (University of Antwerp), Professor Cécile Mathys (University of Liège), professor Vanessa Franssen (University of Liège), Professor Jogchum Vrielink (UCLouvain Saint-Louis Bruxelles), Professor Mona Giacometti (University of Antwerp), Aurélie Gilen (University of Antwerp) and Océane Gangi (University of Liège).




Cécile Mathys

Vanessa Franssen

Photo : ©Envato

Share this news