The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Pekka Räsänen, Teo Keipi: Does exposure to hate material make us less happy? A comparative study of American and Finnish youth

Pekka Räsänen, Department of Economic Sociology, Turku University

Teo Keipi, Department of Economic Sociology, Turku University


The role of happiness, or subjective well-being, in improving human functioning and fostering a sense of fulfillment continues to be reinforced by research (Schiffrin and Nelson 2010; Proctor et al. 2008). The positive emotions associated with happiness have been found to improve both task performance and overall health (Lyubomirsky et al. 2005) in addition to improving relationships and overall life satisfaction (Gamble 2012; Uusitalo-Malmivaara 2012). Happiness also carries significant developmental effects; emotional stability and low anxiety are the highest predictors of youth life satisfaction (Schiffrin 2009; Rigbey and Huebner 2005). Notably, youth are increasingly spending time online, becoming more self-networking than ever before and making online content a pivotal affecter of well-being through continual exposure (Davidson and Martellozzo 2013; Lehdonvirta and Räsänen 2010; Näsi, Räsänen and Lehdonvirta 2011). As young people continue to lead other age groups in the consumption of internet materials and online social networking, the risks of doing so also increase (Livingstone and Helsper 2010; Livingstone et al. 2011). 

Although the new level of connectedness that modern online media provides is often beneficial, its potential negative effects on the lives of youth are of great concern, due to its facilitation of various forms of negative behavior (Strasburger et al. 2010; Livingstone and Helsper 2010). The globalization of technology and access to internet content has increased online hate groups and other hate-related activities (Perry and Olsson 2009). Online, hate is directed at various groups through visual materials, games and text-based interaction and the lack of monitoring can foster harmful subcultures promoting negative behaviors or attitudes (Mishna et al. 2009; Hawdon 2012; Foxman and Wolf 2013). 

Experiencing abuse online has been found to increase feelings of depression, confusion and the desire to withdraw from meaningful relationships (Mishna et al. 2009). This is in direct opposition to the positive affects of happiness, namely joy, optimism and domain satisfaction in relationships (Diener et al. 1999). However, research into how the witnessing of hate and abuse directed at others online affects the subjective well-being of the witness is lacking. What is needed is research that examines new factors correlating with happiness in order to develop a more complete model of the relationship between happiness and various stressors (Schiffrin and Nelson 2010). The present study aims to provide this through exploring whether exposure to hate material online affects youth negatively.

This study analyzes not only the relationship between online hate exposure and happiness, but also any possible differences in findings cross-nationally as the dataset is comprised of both U.S. and Finnish samples. The relationship between happiness and various variables will be explored, namely online hate, social trust, offline friendships, online victimization and economic status in both Finnish and American samples. Findings will then be compared in order to analyze any possible variation given institutional or cultural differences. This unique analysis and cross-national comparison allows for a deeper understanding of how the happiness of young people is affected by what they experience online, especially in terms of online hate. 

A review of literature concerning determinants and relevant spheres of influence of subjective well-being, combined with the analysis of data, work toward answering the following research questions: 

1. Does exposure to online hate material associate with happiness among US and Finnish youth?
2. What kind of effects are there between private and parochial sphere determinants of happiness?
3. How do differences by private and parochial sphere determinants vary by country? 

The study is based on two datasets based on online survey responses from both Finnish (n=555) and American (n=1,014) young people aged 15-30. Data were collected in the spring of 2013. The survey was optimized for both computers and mobile devices and included socio-demographic variables and questions concerning online activity and various risks. Participants were also asked about offline interactions, social trust, life satisfaction and victimization. 

Data analysis showed various similarities between the U.S. and Finnish datasets. In both, happiness was negatively correlated with exposure to online hate. Furthermore, happiness was positively correlated with strengthening of strong social ties in the private sphere (meeting offline friends) more often. Parochial sphere determinants, such as being outside of full-time employment and experiences of online victimization were negatively correlated with happiness. There were also differences between countries. Most notably, exposure to online hate was more frequent in the U.S. sample while instances of online victimization were lower. In the Finnish sample, social trust placed in weak social ties in private sphere (meeting people online) was positively correlated with happiness, while in the U.S. sample, there was no relationship. 

The findings of the study illustrate the dynamics of hate online along with how the populations of both the U.S. and Finland relate to such exposure. This audience-focused approach allows for a deeper understanding of how online hate is perceived by young people, toward a better gauge of the damage that results.

Pekka Räsänen, Teo Keipi