Girls and young women worldwide are demanding urgent action from social media companies after a landmark survey has revealed more than half (58%) have been harassed or abused online.
Attacks are most common on Facebook, where 39% say they have suffered harassment, but occur on every platform included in the global study including Instagram (23%), WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%).
The research by Plan International, a leading girls’ rights organisation, is based on a survey of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries, including Kenya, Brazil, Benin, the USA and India, and a series of in-depth interviews.
The largest study of its kind, found girls who use social media in high and low-income countries alike are routinely subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyber stalking and other distressing forms of abuse, and reporting tools are ineffective in stopping it.
Kate Maina – Vorley, Country Director of Plan International – Kenya, said: “Although internet access varies between and within countries, and not all girls are online yet, we do know that more will be online in the future. It is therefore paramount that online safety is prioritised. We must also be cognisant of the fact that online abuse disempowers girls and young women by shutting them out of a space which plays a huge part in young people’s lives to advocate for their rights and share their opinions.”
Online violence is a complex problem that all power holders have a role in tackling. All members of society including family, communities and civil societies need to be active allies for girls and young women experiencing online harassment by supporting girls to report.
“Kenya has legislation in place and reporting mechanisms on how to report cases of online harassment including ways in which girls and young women can identify and preserve evidence. Yet the majority of online users do not have this information. The government together with other stakeholders must develop and implement initiatives that support awareness creation on digital citizenship, information on available helplines for victims as well as collecting and publishing disaggregated data on online gender-based violence,” added Kate Maina-Vorley.
Online violence has led to nearly one in five (19%) of those who have been harassed stopping or significantly reducing their use of the platform on which it happened, while another one in ten (12%) have changed the way they express themselves.
Abuse also damages girls’ lives offline, with one in five (22%) of those surveyed saying they or a friend have been left fearing for their physical safety, while 44% say social media companies need to do more to protect them.
The most common type of attack is abusive and insulting language, reported by 59% of girls who have been harassed, followed by purposeful embarrassment (41%), body shaming and threats of sexual violence (both 39%). More than a third (37%) of girls who are from an ethnic minority and have suffered abuse say they are targeted because of their race or ethnicity.
“When I completed high school, I thought of sharing my experiences through YouTube as a content creator. However, I gained weight and used to be trolled and body shamed because of the weight gain. I do remember a number of people telling me I have gained weight because I use contraceptives, yet that was not the case. I just added weight naturally, maybe from resting after the pressure that comes with school,” said 23-year-old Sarah from Huruma estate in Nairobi adding that “The experience was very humiliating for me and I almost gave up. But I kept going and I now have over 500 and counting subscribers on my channel.”
Harassment takes a profound toll on girls’ confidence and wellbeing, with 39% of those surveyed saying it lowers self-esteem, 38% saying it creates mental and emotional stress and 18% saying it can cause problems at school. Online harassment and abuse restrict girls’ and women’s freedom online. It is an injustice and a barrier to them leading the drive for gender equality. It reinforces sexism tendencies and causes emotional and psychological harm. It also prevents girls from accessing relevant information and forming their own identities online while expressing their opinions.
Sarah adds, “My message to social media companies would be to try and come up with advanced settings and more strict measures on how to handle harassment. Currently the options that I use to avoid experiencing harassment is to block anyone who speaks to me inappropriately online and I also try to ensure that I only accept friend requests from people with whom we have mutual friends.”
Describing her experience of using social media as a young girl, one woman from Sudan, now 20, said: “I used to get a lot of messages from boys asking me to send nudes or blackmailing me about a picture that I posted that they’re going share it or edit it in a bad way and share it with everyone if I don’t do this or that.
Although one in three (35%) have reported perpetrators, abuse persists because they can make new accounts and significant numbers of people need to report harmful content before action is taken.
The report – titled Free to be online? Girls’ and young women’s experiences of online harassment– found that social media is a significant part of young people’s lives and is widely used for activism, entertainment, to learn and to keep in touch with friends and family. Three-quarters (74%) of those surveyed say they post frequently or very frequently, while interviews suggest that COVID-19 has made being online even more important.
The research was carried out as part of Girls Get Equal, Plan International’s global campaign for a world where girls and young women have the power to be leaders and shape the world around them.
As part of the campaign, girls around the world have written an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter calling on them to create stronger and more effective ways to report abuse and harassment. Plan International is also asking governments worldwide to implement specific laws to deal with online gender-based violence and ensure girls who suffer it have access to justice.