Almost a third of students aged seven to 15 years have received unwanted rude and inappropriate messages online, according to new data. 

Nearly half of these messages -  46%, were received from people they knew. 

The figures form part of a survey that sheds light on online abuse experienced by Maltese students.

The survey was conducted among 387 children in Years 3 to 11 across Malta’s schools by MISCO International between May and June. It was commissioned by The Malta Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, as part of its Promote Online Protection Project – P.O.P-Up.

Students were given the option to fill out the survey either online or on paper, with the questionnaire available in both Maltese and English. Parental or guardian consent was required.

The findings were presented by Antonella Gatt during a press conference at Maison Notre Dame in Floriana.

Antonella Gatt unveiling the survey on children's experience of cyberbullying. Photo: Jonathan BorgAntonella Gatt unveiling the survey on children's experience of cyberbullying. Photo: Jonathan Borg

30% of unsolicited messages are 'hate mail'

Looking at the data, children attending Year 3- 6 (aged between seven and 11) experienced more online abuse than children attending Year 7-11 (ages 12-15).

Overall, 30% of the unwanted messages students received were "hate mail". Another 14% were rude messages, and 12% messages of a sexual nature. 

An eight-year-old received the following message: 

“Qisek baqra u inti ħadd ma jħobbok. Lanqas ommok u missierek” (You are like a cow, and no one loves you. Not even your mother or father.)

A nine-year-old reported receiving pictures of people’s private parts, and was asked to send pictures of themselves back. 

A 13-year-old was told "there would be consequences" if they did not send inappropriate pictures of themselves,” Gatt said. 

Other students reported receiving messages from people “wanting sugar babies”. A sugar baby is a young person who goes on dates in exchange for gifts or money.

Students also reported receiving messaging asking them to kill themselves.

A total 46% of those who received inappropriate messages said these came from people they knew.

The survey showed that 15% of children experienced some form of online abuse.

How many hours do children spend on social media?

The study found that the most popular social media platform among school children is TikTok (40%). 

Facebook (30%) came second, follwed by Instagram (29%) and Snap Chat (28%). 

Older children (14-16) are more likely to use communication technology, with 70% using WhatsApp.

Gatt said when online, younger children were more likely to play games, while older ones tended to chat with friends and do school-related work. 

A total 11% of 11 to 13-year-olds spent six hours a day online, while another 18% aged seven to 10 spent more than three hours a day online. 

According to the data, boys tended to spend more time online than girls.

The figures also show that young respondents and boys are more likely to have received rude or inappropriate messages from people they know.

A total 9% of seven- to 10-year-olds chatted with strangers and 46% surfed the internet while alone.

Bullying is everywhere- Marie Louise Coleiro Preca

Speaking during the conference, MFWS chairperson Marie Louise Coleiro Preca said children continuously face abuse online and offline. 

She recalled how a friend of hers, a teacher, was distraught because one of her students attempted to commit suicide after her classmates bullied her on social media platforms. 

MFWS chairperson Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. Photo: Jonathan BorgMFWS chairperson Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. Photo: Jonathan Borg

“The student survived, but she is stuck in a wheelchair for life,” Coleiro Preca said. 

“My friend was devastated, and full of guilt because she did not see the signs of her student being bullied. Children today are facing abuse online all the time."

She explained that the P.O.P-Up project aims to protect young children from online abuse through a multi-pronged approach. 

It aims to provide specialised training sessions for psychosocial teams in local state, church and private schools. 

The MFWS is also collaborating with the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (UNITU) to prepare guidelines which will be distributed to the school's psychosocial teams, stakeholders, policymakers, guardians, educators and students. The guidelines will be translated into Maltese.

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