Girls and young women worldwide are demanding social media companies take urgent action to protect them, as a landmark survey has revealed universal and shocking accounts of escalating online violence.
In Australia, 65% of girls and young women aged 15-25 have been exposed to a spectrum of online violence (compared to the global figure of 58%), and half of those who have experienced harassment have suffered mental and emotional distress as a result.
One in five Australian girls and young women have feared for their physical safety due to online threats.
Plan International, the charity for girls’ equality, surveyed 14,000 girls aged 15-25 across 33 countries, including Australia, Canada, Brazil, Benin, Japan, Zambia the USA and India (full list in notes below).
The Free to Be Online report is the largest ever study of its kind to map the experiences of girls on social media. In all 22 countries, girls had been exposed to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of abuse.
The most common type is abusive and insulting language, reported by more than half (59%) of girls, followed by deliberate embarrassment (41%), body shaming and threats of sexual violence (both 39%).
Globally, attacks are most common on Facebook, where 39% have suffered harassment, followed by Instagram (23%), WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%).
Disturbingly, one in five (19%) who had been subject to online violence significantly reduced their use of social media, while one in 10 (12%) changed the way they expressed themselves online. Almost half (44%) of all the girls and young women surveyed said social media companies needed to do more to protect them.
This abuse damages girls’ lives offline, with one in five (22%) of those surveyed across 22 countries saying they or a friend have been left fearing for their physical safety. One in three (39%) reported low self-esteem, and a similar number (38%) said the harassment caused mental and emotional stress. One in five (18%) said it caused problems at school.social media also has an ugly side, where the worst of humanity has manifested, violence has flourished to the point where for many girls, abuse is a day to day reality
In Australia, 1000 girls and young women aged 15-25 were surveyed as part of the global research. On most measures, they fared worse than the global average. The Australian data showed:
CEO of Plan International, Susanne Legena, said as more girls worldwide are living their lives online than at any point in history, the impact of spiralling levels of abuse were deeply troubling.
“Social media has profoundly shaped our society in ways none of us expected and COVID-19 has driven billions around the world to shift their existences online. It has given voice to millions of young people to fight for their rights and a better future. But social media also has an ugly side, where the worst of humanity has manifested, violence has flourished to the point where for many girls, abuse is a day to day reality,” Ms Legena said.
“When you consider the shockingly high number of girls worldwide who are subject to abuse every time they participate in discussions online, in addition to being hassled and harassed on the street when they step outside their homes, and that harassment is a form of violence, there is no space – virtual or other – where girls are safe and free from violence.
“As a result, girls are reporting long term mental health problems and in many cases, are opting out of expressing themselves and their opinions for fear of retribution, and sometimes removing themselves from these platforms altogether. Once again, as we’ve seen with street harassment, perpetrators are using their perceived power to silence girls and to force them out of spaces that should be safe and welcoming for them. And this is absolutely unacceptable.There’s no doubt about it: social media is the new frontier for gendered violence and the rapid escalation we’ve witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic is chilling
“The bitter truth we must accept is this: online violence is serious. It silences girls’ voices and it causes real and lasting harm. So we must ask, what are we going to do about it?”
“Everyone is accountable for keeping girls safe, from individuals to bystanders, to governments. We’re starting our campaign to clean up the internet with the social media companies, because that is who girls have told us they want to respond to this, first and foremost.”
Plan International Australia’s girl-led campaign calling on social media companies to improve reporting launches today. It feeds into the global campaign and aims to create a critical mass of voices calling for social media companies to make vast improvements to their platforms to protect girls, listen to them, to take their complaints seriously and to clean up the feeds.
“There are mechanisms on every platform to report abuse and harassment and indeed many of these social media giants have made vast improvements recently, but the reality is that abuse is endemic. It is thriving under COVID-19 lockdowns, it’s global and almost universal in its nature, yet the consequences for those who perpetrate it are arbitrary and oftentimes non-existent.
“Girls tell us that when they report, often clearly quite horrific offensive content is inexplicably deemed as acceptable and even when their attackers are banned, they’re back at it days later and often under the protection of anonymity. The system is broken and something needs to change.”
The open letter to social media companies can be accessed here: https://plan.org.au/free-to-be-online/