The present study investigated cyber victimization in adolescents from seven European countries. Previous research has focused primarily on cyberbullying victimization prevalence rates and related psychopathological symptoms [6, 11, 12, 30, 31, 53]. Consequently, the present study is novel in comparing individual factors associated with cyberbullying victimization, namely socio-demographic, Internet use and psychosocial variables, between countries. On the whole, the pattern of victimization rates across countries is consistent with the “EU Kids Online” study , with the exception of Greece which held a higher ranking by percentage of adolescents victimized. However, the current study found overall higher rates of cybervictimization compared to EU Kids Online, ranging from 13.3 to 37.3%.
The relatively high percentages recorded in the present study may reflect a growing temporal trend, but could also be influenced by differences in the ages of participants between studies. The “EU Kids Online” sample consisted of 9–16-year-old adolescents, whereas the EU.NET.ADB study included adolescents aged from 14 to 17 - a population much more likely to use the Internet and SNS actively and more frequently, and in which ICT knowledge is often accompanied by a tendency for online bullying of peers . Furthermore, data collection procedures differed between the two studies.
Results and differences by country
Romania presented the highest rates of cyberbullying, supporting previous literature that has consistently ranked it highest in its rate of cybervictimization along with other Eastern European countries [6, 14]. The percentage of Romanian adolescents bullied online was much greater than that reported in the “EU Kids Online” study . Romania has seen a sharp increase in Internet and SNS use in recent years; underestimation of risks by parents, and absence of parental digital skills may have contributed to the emergence of high rates of cyberbullying victimization . This sudden rise in Internet use, compared to the steadier and much earlier growth of Internet use in the other European countries studied , leaves a large technological gap between parents and the younger generation. Moreover, the absence of a legislative framework for the protection of Romanian children online, as well as the current lack of integration of ICT components into education, limits the promotion of online safety and awareness of online risks .
Greece was the only country that deviated from the pattern established by the “EU Kids Online” study  and other national studies [20, 21, 25], presenting higher rates of cybervictimization compared to previous studies . While Greece has made several efforts regarding promoting online safety, the very rapid diffusion of Internet technologies has reached many adolescents who lack digital skills and awareness of online risks. In particular, 38% of adolescents leave their Facebook profile public . However, this growing pattern, along with internalizing and externalizing problems arising as the only associated factors, may reflect the deeply rooted contemporary problems Greece is facing, which have affected adolescents on a national and societal level . The socioeconomic crisis has influenced adolescent development in emotional and social domains, influencing both their own behavior but also the interacting levels of their socio-emotional development; it has affected the way they cope with their everyday concerns and their family’s financial limitations , making them more prone to violence , and influencing their sensitivity to stressors, one of which could be online victimization.
The percentage of adolescents that had experienced cyberbullying in Poland was similar to rates reported elsewhere in Europe . In contrast to Romania and Greece, Poland has enforced legislation targeting cyberbullying as a form of emotional violence and has included ICT literacy in the primary and secondary school curricula . All the same, rates of cyberbullying victimization in this study were greater than those reported in the “EU Kids Online” study . Furthermore, in Poland, attempts at parental control of time spent online were established as an individual factor significantly associated with cyberbullying victimization, supporting previous research that has repeatedly associated it with cyberbullying [4, 40, 41]. These results are in contrast with the “EU Kids Online” study, which reported that 74% of children have a positive attitude towards parental mediation - which tends to be of a restrictive nature – based, however, on an overall younger sample .
In the present study rates of cyber victimization in Germany were higher than in past national studies and European research programs, with the exception of a study conducted by Katzer and colleagues  on chat room victimization. Specifically, Riebel and colleagues  found an overall cyberbullying victimization rate of 14.1%. The “EU Kids Online” study estimated cyberbullying among German children and adolescents at 5% . In contrast to Romania and Greece, Germany has made substantial efforts to promote online safety, both through the “Internet and Digital Society Committee of Inquiry” and individual states, including the “Medienpass (media passport) NRW” program, an attempt to improve education on digital skills by offering advice and guidance .
The Netherlands emerged as one of the countries with the lowest rates of cybervictimization, although the rate was higher than the 4% reported for Dutch children in the “EU Kids Online” study . According to a qualitative study conducted in the Netherlands by Jacobs and colleagues , cyber-bullies are judged as “cowards” by their peers and are heavily criticized amongst young students, which may account for the low rates reported. Furthermore, the Netherlands has previously been reported as a country with considerable levels of ICT literacy that were established as early as 2004, allowing for the integration of digital skills into education and the use of active parental monitoring that may contribute to the lower rates observed .
In Iceland, the low rates of cyberbullying victimization are difficult to compare, because findings establishing national rates are scarce. Higher educational level was associated with increased odds of cybervictimization. This may be explained by the greater use and potentially increased access to electronic equipment by adolescents who are in better socioeconomic circumstances . However, it also suggests that educational attainment is not necessarily related to parental digital skills which may contribute to adolescent’s safer use of Internet technologies.
The present study found a higher probability of adolescents in Spain being cyber-bullied than in a number of previous Spanish national studies, which obtained estimates of 5.5 to 9.3% , and in European cross-national studies [13, 14]. However, the rate was lower than in one study conducted by Buelga and colleagues , who reported rates of 29% for Internet victimization in the past 12 months. The identification of internalizing and externalizing problems as main risk factors demonstrates that socio-emotional and behavioral traits of victims [31, 53] are associated with the experience of cyberbullying. Regarding gender, our findings conflict with some Spanish studies that highlighted the greater rates of victimization among females [13, 53], but support research that found low predictive power of gender and age in predicting cyberbullying .
Cybervictimization in relation to socio-demographic characteristics
Although previous studies compared gender and age in relation to the occurrence of different types of cyberbullying [6, 13], the present study’s novelty is rooted in its comparative approach to establishing socio-demographic risk factors cross-nationally in this age group. Regarding gender differences, results from the majority of countries are in agreement with previous literature that did not find gender to be statistically significantly associated with cyberbullying [7,8,9, 14], demonstrating that in terms of victimization (not necessarily perpetration) girls and boys can equally be recipients of relational aggression online. Consequently, it is imperative to develop prevention measures that acknowledge members of either gender as potential victims of bullying online.
In the Netherlands, however, girls were twice as likely to experience cyberbullying compared to boys, in line with past research that established greater cyberbullying victimization prevalence in girls than boys [3, 14]. This result may be to some extent attributed to the definition employed and the perception of Dutch adolescents, and suggests a limitation of the operational definition employed; specifically, it has been reported that girls in the Netherlands experience online victimization as more negative than boys and older students . Consequently, the use of the terms “hurtful” and “nasty” in the operationalization of cyberbullying may account for the higher odds of female victimization in the Netherlands.
Finally, age arose as a risk factor of cyber victimization only in Romania , reflecting the inconsistent results obtained in the literature [8, 22, 24, 34]. Since this finding was only established in Romania, it is worth considering these results in light of SNS and Internet usage being associated with cyberbullying victimization, possibly suggesting that absence of computer literacy over safety issues in younger adolescents in Romania may play an important role in their risk of victimization. Future research should thus be directed at observing patterns and means of cyberbullying victimization in relation to age.
Association with psychosocial characteristics
Going beyond previous studies merely reporting the prevalence of cybervictimization, we carried out regression analyses relating cybervictimization to the adolescent’s psychosocial characteristics. Internalizing problems increased the odds of having experienced cyberbullying in all countries analysed. These results correspond to previous findings that associated cybervictimization with lower self-esteem , suicidal ideation , social anxiety and depression . This consistent association demonstrates that adolescents who internalize their problems are at greater risk of experiencing cyberbullying [6, 9], a relationship that is likely to be bidirectional in nature. On the one hand, adolescents who experience internalizing difficulties may have a greater likelihood of perceiving a behavior as hurtful, but may also manifest such negative feelings in response to the aggressive behavior. In addition, in the present study, externalizing problems increased the odds of online victimization in Greece, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands and Iceland, consistent with previous literature that establishes a connection between externalizing behavior and cyberbullying victimization [7, 8, 13, 27].
Internet use and SNS variables
Although Internet use for more than 2 h a day arose as a risk factor for cyberbullying only in Romania, the odds for having experienced cyberbullying increased when SNS were used for more than 2 h a day in Romania, Germany and Poland. This is an important finding, challenging past research that postulates that ownership, rather than use of an SNS profile, increases the risk of cybervictimization . Spending a greater amount of time online, and specifically on SNS, is consistently associated with cyberbullying, possibly due to the increased posting of private information and meeting strangers online . Furthermore, if social media are used as a means of communication within the context of relationships, they also become a vehicle for problem solving and the expression of relational aggression . Either way, increased SNS use places adolescents at greater risk of cyberbullying . Most importantly, the statistical significance of SNS in increasing cyberbullying victimization probability occurred in countries with high rates of cyberbullying, but not in countries with lower rates, despite the high use of SNS in countries such as the Netherlands and Spain .
Strengths and limitations
The primary strength of the present study lies in its novelty in providing estimates of cyberbullying victimization across seven European countries in this specific age group. Furthermore, this study identifies factors that increase the odds of the occurrence of online victimization, including demographic, socio-economic and psychosocial characteristics. The large representative samples and anonymous self-reporting have substantially restricted the potential for biases. However, this study also has certain limitations. Specifically, its cross-sectional nature limits our understanding of the direct causes of cyberbullying victimization, and self-reports may introduce bias if there is an element of social desirability in responding. Furthermore, five years have passed since the study was conducted, thus limiting the extent to which it represents the current picture of cybervictimization, bearing in mind the rapid technological developments in Internet, and especially mobile, technologies. Finally, in common with almost all school-based studies, data were collected from only those students who were present on the day of data collection.