More than half of all girls and young women between 15 and 25 years of age have been harassed and abused online. One in four of these girls feel physically unsafe as a result. And one in five have since stopped using social media altogether or have significantly reduced its use. These are some of the key findings of a large-scale worldwide survey by Plan International.
Girls Targeted Just Because They Are Young and Female
Plan International’s 2020 State of the World’s Girls Report aims to uncover and better understand girls’ experiences when online and on social media platforms. The report is based on research conducted across 31 countries and multiple continents (a survey was conducted in 22 countries and in-depth interviews were conducted with women from 16 countries). “Free to be Online” is the third annual report in a new series that examines the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that limit girls’ freedom and opportunities in specific environments or sectors.
“This research is based on conversations with more than 14,000 girls from different continents, but they tell similar stories about harassment and discrimination,” warns Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. “The attacks may not be physical, but they are often threatening and persistent, and they limit freedom of expression.”
Girls are targeted online just because they are young and female, according to the report’s findings. And if they are politically outspoken, disabled, Black or identify as LGBTIQ+, it gets worse. The forms of harassment vary. Sometimes girls feel “put down” for expressing their opinions. Some are being threatened with violence. And others are bombarded with unsolicited pornographic images. “Like street harassment it is unremitting, often psychologically damaging and can lead to actual physical harm.”
Harassment Happens Everywhere and On All Platforms
The countries included in the study represent a wide range of different contexts. They included, for example, countries with the highest scores in the SDG Gender Equality Index, such as Norway (fourth in the world) and the Netherlands (fifth in the world). But also countries ranking much lower, like Benin and Nigeria (109th and 122nd in the world respectively). Across all countries, 64% of girls use social media frequently. 23% have a medium level of usage. And the remaining 13% are not often on social media.
Platform use also varies by age. WhatsApp is frequently used by girls and young women of varying ages, but young women use Facebook more frequently than adolescent girls. They prefer Instagram. Adolescent girls, however, use Snapchat and TikTok much more than young women. Facebook, TikTok and Instagram carry a greater risk of harassment by unknown perpetrators because they are more open. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is a closed messaging service.
Nonetheless, harassment and intimidation happens in all countries and on all platforms. The platforms it occurs most on are Facebook (39%) and Instagram (23%). Followed by WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%). Unauthorized sharing of content or, even more worryingly, demonstrating knowledge of a girls’ personal information was an issue for 41% of women. Both are a disturbing invasion of privacy.
Freedom of Speech… Not for Girls?
47% of the girls and young women reported being attacked for their opinions. This was especially the case when they talked about feminist or gender equality issues. The girls felt that, in most cases, the aim of the attack was to diminish their credibility and knowledge or to try and silence them altogether. Girls “shouldn’t speak about certain topics”. On social media, like offline, they are “expected to know their place”.
The messages have affected the online behavior of the girls and young women who have been harassed. Nearly one in five (19%) say they have stopped using the platform on which it happened, or significantly reduced its use. Another 12% say they now express themselves differently. About one in four are left feeling physically unsafe. Nearly half have lost their self-esteem and feel mentally or emotionally stressed. 18% also reported having problems at school following online harassment.
“Harassment is not just a problem in and of itself, but a barrier to girls’ leadership and participation in modern life,” said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. “Girls are already driven from public spaces by street harassment and shut out of decision-making spaces by social norms that tell us they are not leaders. Online violence reinforces these norms in violent and explicit ways. We cannot allow this to continue in the online spaces once predicted to be a great equalizer.”
Social Media Companies and Governments Need to Act
At the moment, little is being done to protect girls and young women online. “It is disappointing that the girls themselves have to learn to deal with online violence”, continued Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. “With internet access growing across all continents and Covid-19 moving more of our lives online than ever before, online protection is an urgent priority. Now is the time to act for safe online environments where girls can be themselves and thrive.”
In the 22-country survey of 14,000 girls, they were asked who – out of the police, social media companies, the government, other social media users, or civil society organizations – should do more to fight against online harassment. Social media companies topped the list followed by governments. As a result, girls and young women have penned an open letter calling on the world’s major social media platforms to create stronger and more effective ways to report online abuse.
Plan International calls upon social media companies, governments, but also communities, families, and all members of society to step up and take this issue seriously. “Social media platforms have huge power and potential to tackle this. But they are not the only power holders who must act.”