Challenging Risk: NZ High-school Students’ Activity, Challenge, Distress, and Resiliency, within Cyberspace

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NetSafe’s approach to cyberbullying is inspired by evidence based research undertaken between 2007 and 2011 by Research Manager Dr John Fenaughty as part of his psychology doctoral thesis at the University of Auckland.

This work also shapes our approach to the concept of digital citizenship, the evolution of the NetSafe Kit for Schools and the design of the Learn: Guide: Protect framework that supports schools in creating a culture of responsible, safe use of digital technologies.

Key findings

John’s research – titled Challenging Risk: NZ High-school Students’ Activity, Challenge, Distress, and Resiliency, within Cyberspace – interviewed and surveyed around 1,700 NZ secondary school students about their safety challenges on the internet and mobile phones. The research went further to find out what helped students to successfully sort out these challenges.

Some key findings were:

  • Nearly 99% of all the students reported using the internet and/or mobile phones at least three or more times a week. The internet and mobile phones are now a normal part of NZ young people’s lives.
  • The internet and mobile phones offer young people opportunities that help their development.
  • Certain electronic activities are popular because they are particularly helpful for young people’s development. For instance, communicating helps develop friendships, intimacy, social support, as well as assisting with homework and school projects.
  • Nearly two thirds of students reported at least one challenging situation online or on mobile phones in the past year, however only half of them said that this experience was distressing.
  • Around a third of students experienced a distressing challenge online or on mobile phones in the past year.
  • Internet and mobile phone harassment (e.g., text bullying) was the most frequent distressing challenge for NZ young people.
  • Young people in NZ experience many different forms of internet harassment (e.g., nasty comments, identity theft), but four are the most likely to produce distress, including receiving mean comments on a mobile phone, or having rumours spread about them on the internet.
  • Young people who were skilled at asking adults for help were more likely to resolve cyberbullying situations. However, adult support was not always helpful.
  • There are two practical implications from this finding. First, it is important to ensure that young people can ask for the help they need.
  • Second adults need to know how to provide useful support; for instance, listening to the young person; responding calmly and not blaming them for the bullying (even if they used the internet or phone when they shouldn’t have); not removing access to the internet and the mobile phone (as this cuts off their social network – critical in adolescence); retaining digital evidence of the bullying; and identifying authorities who can intervene.

The research includes many more significant features about a range of challenges online for young people in NZ. The thesis abstract is produced below. John will be publishing academic articles from this research and can be contacted by email if you wish to discuss aspects of the thesis and obtain a full copy of the work.


Cyberspace, the digital environment produced by the Internet and mobile phones, has become a major developmental context for young people in Aotearoa/New Zealand (NZ).  From 2005, the phenomena of convergence and Web 2.0 enabled more cyber-activity, from more places, more often.  The thesis utilised mixed methods to explore cyber-activity, and the challenges it produced.  It also examined resilience; focusing on factors associated with successful resolution of distressing challenges.

The first phase used eight focus groups (N = 36), as well as literature reviews, to produce a model for understanding cyber-challenge.  The second phase deployed a questionnaire, based on aspects of this model, with 1,673 diverse NZ secondary school students.

Cyberspace was accessed frequently (at least three or more times a week) by 98.4% of the sample.  Participants reported an average of 7.29 (sd = 1.93) categories of cyber-activity annually.  Activities classed as “communicating” and “researching” were most common.  At least one cyber-challenge was reported by 67.5% of participants, however, only around half of them reported distress associated with a challenge.  By volume, cyberbullying was the most distressing challenge reported (17.6%). Although ignoring was the most common management strategy used across six distressing challenges, it was never positively associated with resolution. On average, 38.3% of participants reported use of social support to manage distressing cyber-challenges. Significant age and gender differences highlighted aspects of adolescent development in cyberspace, for example older adolescents were more likely to report communication, banking, copyright-infringement, time-management problems; females reported more communication, phone-cyberbullying, distressing cyberbullying, unwanted sexual solicitation; and males reported more making new friends, dating, gaming, trading, Internet-cyberbullying, cyberbullying others, sexual-content exposure, and distressing time-management problems.

Logistic regression identified features associated with distressing challenge resolution.  Although adult help seeking ability was associated with the resolution of four categories of cyber-challenge, actual adult support (or other social support) was not, suggesting that resiliency depends on the quality of the intervention, not its presence per se.  Given the prominent place of social support as an intervention, adults (and peers) need to be equipped to better support young people to manage challenges. Cybersafety programmes should target common distressing challenges first.

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