With widespread access to the internet, online communication has become an integral part of life, especially for adolescents (Inchley et al., 2016; Valkenburg and Peter, 2011). Not only has interacting with peers expanded to the virtual world, but also the internet plays an important role in learning and entertainment. Therefore, questions on the amount and purpose of use were included in the current ESPAD questionnaire.
In 2015, students were using the internet on an average of 5.8 days per week. Fewer online days per week were reported in Albania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Georgia, Italy, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania and Ukraine, mostly countries in the east of Europe. Differences between countries in time spent online may not necessarily reflect cultural differences but may be due to differences in access to the internet and devices with internet capability, for example smartphones or personal computers, although a wide coverage of internet access in most countries in Europe can be assumed. Comparable data on internet use based on representative studies, even if recently published, may not reflect current behaviour in internet use (Boniel-Nissim et al., 2015; Inchley et al., 2016). This may be because, in the last 5 or 6 years, devices with internet capability have become increasingly affordable for young people, and being on the internet every day or every hour is much more common. Official data can be found at internet service providers, television stations, polling institutes or public agencies, but the figures differ greatly and it is difficult to make between-country comparisons. For instance, data in the United Kingdom suggest that more than four in five adults used the internet anywhere on any device (Office of Communication, 2015), and in Germany 14- to 29-year-olds were using the internet for 187 minutes per day in 2015 (Engel and Breunig, 2015).
Apart from information on how often and for how much time adolescents are using the internet, their online activities are of particular interest. The ESPAD questionnaire focused on six general activities: using social media, information seeking/surfing, streaming/downloading, online gaming, online money gambling and buying/selling. The results suggest that the internet plays an important role for adolescents: in 2015, using the internet for social media, for example to have daily social media contact with friends, was the most common online activity; 78 % of the students stated that they have used social media on 4 or more days in the last 7 days. Students reported that using online communication made it easier to talk to friends of both sexes, making the internet a powerful tool for helping adolescents to connect. Overall, girls used social media more often than boys did. A gender difference in social media use was also found in the HBSC study, with 35 % of the girls and 32 % of the boys reporting daily social media contact with friends (Boniel-Nissim et al., 2015). In a longitudinal survey in the United Kingdom focusing on adolescents and adults (16 years and older), nearly three quarters of internet users had a social media profile in 2014, compared with 22 % in 2007. Furthermore, 81 % reported using social media at least once a day, which equals an increase of 51 percentage points compared to 2007. As expected, 16- to 24-year-olds reported higher levels of social media use compared with older users (Office of Communication, 2015). This is also in line with recent results from Germany: 58 % of the 14- to 29-year-olds used the internet every day for social media, with an average of 139 minutes (Engel and Breunig, 2015).
The next most common internet activities were streaming/ downloading and information seeking/surfing, with 48 % and 43 % of the students, respectively, reporting these internet activities on 4 or more days in the last 7 days. These activities reflect the use of the internet as a tool, for example to listen to music or to watch a video, but young people spend only some of their internet time on these activities. For instance, among 14- to 29-year olds in Germany, only 48 minutes from an estimated total online time of 187 minutes per day was spent on these activities (Engel and Breunig, 2015). However, it can be assumed that this time will expand in the next few years, especially for streaming and downloading. Recent figures indicate that over a quarter of internet users watch TV or films online at least once a week, compared to one in ten in 2007. At the same time, watching video clips online has doubled among the internet users during this time, from 21 % to 39 %. YouTube, launched in 2005, is now cited by one third of internet users as an important source for information (Office of Communication, 2015). This trend may continue, with new online services like film or music streaming services becoming more and more available in the coming years.
Research has raised concern that internet use and online communication contributes to loneliness and isolation (Hampton et al., 2011). Other studies, however, stress the importance of the internet as a powerful tool for helping people to connect (Boniel-Nissim et al., 2015; Kuntsche et al., 2009; Valkenburg and Peter, 2011).
Online gaming and gambling
Over the last 10 years, mainly driven by the increasing popularity of smartphones and tablets, gaming has become more popular and increasingly mobile. Since 2005, gaming, both online and mobile, has doubled in terms of weekly use (Office of Communication, 2015). According to the present study more than one in five students (23 %) regularly (at least four times in the last 7 days) used the internet for online gaming. Online gaming was more prevalent among boys (39 %) than among girls (7 %). Countries varied substantially in online gaming and gambling activities. While nearly half of the students from Denmark played regularly online (45 %), gaming was not so common in Georgia (13 %), the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Moldova (16 % each).
Online money gambling was the least common of the internet activities (ESPAD average: 3 %). Like online gaming, online gambling for money was predominantly reported by boys (6 %) rather than girls (1 %). The highest participation rates in online money gambling were found in Bulgaria (8 %), Albania, Cyprus and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (7 % each).
Data from the United Kingdom indicate an increase in the prevalence of gaming on any device between 2007 and 2014 from 31 % to 44 % (Office of Communication, 2015). The most active gamers were young people aged 16-24 years. Research on factors associated with gaming indicates that early onset, opposite-sex friends and minimal parental mediation increase the risk for gaming. A high level of game playing was related to bullying in boys and lower life satisfaction in girls (Brooks et al., 2016).
Although generally prohibited by law, youth gambling has become a popular form of recreation. In the 2015 ESPAD study, 14 % of the students reported gambling for money at least once in the last 12 months and 7 % gambled frequently (2-4 times a month or more often). In all countries, considerably more boys than girls had gambling experience or gambled frequently.
With prevalence rates of problematic gambling between 2 % and 13 % worldwide (Volberg et al., 2010), adolescent gambling has become a major public health concern (Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2013; Blinn-Pike et al., 2010). Gambling involvement in youth may lead to adverse consequences such as strained relationships, delinquency and criminal behaviour (Derevensky et al., 2004), depressive symptoms (Bonnaire et al., 2009), comorbid mental disorders (Lorains et al., 2011), low self-esteem (Bergh and Kühlhorn, 1994), impaired relations with family and friends (Dickson-Swift et al., 2005), greater risk for suicide ideation and attempts and poor general health (Potenza, 2008).
Gambling, as a social activity and its social context, is still not very well studied. Research suggests that parents’ levels of schooling, family structure and family socio-demographic characteristics are not related to adolescent gambling behaviours or problem gambling (Langhinrichsen-Rohling et al., 2004; Vitaro et al., 1998). Similar to findings on substance abuse, family structural characteristics seem to be less influential in the development of problem gambling than family relational characteristics (Velleman et al., 2005). In a recent study on the role of family and socioeconomic indicators of welfare state in the development of problem gambling in adolescent students, those receiving more parental caring and monitoring had a lower risk for involvement in problem gambling (Molinaro et al., 2014). Moreover, family support and parental supervision were identified as preventive factors (Hardoon et al., 2004; Magoon and Ingersoll, 2006). Supportive families seem to offer social resources that adolescents can turn to when getting into trouble, and good family relations imply that parents are aware of how and with whom their children spend their free time. Contrary to this, high levels of disciplinary parental ruling were related to higher levels of adolescent problem gambling (Molinaro et al., 2014).
Country variation in rates of adolescent problem gambling has been found to be related to country-level characteristics. Higher health expenditure was associated with lower levels of gambling problems, while country-specific family spending had no effect (Molinaro et al., 2014).