Girls around the world are abused on social media

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A new report by Plan International, a humanitarian organisation that advances children's rights and equality for girls, says more than half of girls around the world have been harassed and abused online.

Released yesterday, the State of the World’s Girls Report says one in four girls abused online feels physically unsafe as a result, and online abuse is silencing girls’ voices.

“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,” it says.

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%).

The Plan International research is based on a survey of 14 000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries.

The report pleads with social media companies and governments to take stern measures to protect girls and young women online, especially during this period when most countries are under COVID-19 lockdown.

It says with lockdown and close to 700 million girls out of school, girls are spending more time than ever on the Internet, as key societal functions are being moved online to prevent the spread of the virus, and “it is more vital than ever that girls enjoy full and equal access to the opportunities social media and the Web have to offer”.

According to the report, online abuse, harassment and hate are shaping social media in a bad direction. This harassment, the report says, includes sexual, pornographic pictures (sextortion), death threats and impersonation, to mention a few from a long list.

It notes that attacks are most common on Facebook, where 39% say they have suffered harassment. However, attacks occur on every platform in the global study, including Instagram (23%), WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%).

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 10 (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.

Commenting on the report, Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, says: “Although this research was gathered in conversation with more than 14 000 girls across multiple continents, they share similar experiences of harassment and discrimination.

“These attacks may not be physical, but they are often threatening, relentless and limit girls’ freedom of expression. Driving girls out of online spaces is hugely disempowering in an increasingly digital world, and damages their ability to be seen, heard and become leaders.

“Disappointingly, they are being left to deal with online violence on their own, with profound consequences for their confidence and wellbeing. With COVID-19 driving more of our lives online and with Internet access around the world improving, it is time for digital platforms to step up and protect their users.”

Pleading for urgent interventions, the report says social media companies have to: create effective and accessible reporting mechanisms that target gender-based violence, hold perpetrators to account, and collect disaggregated data that acknowledges girls’ intersecting identities and tracks the scale and size of the problem.

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 victims have access to justice.

“They must do more to tackle harmful behaviour and ensure their platforms are safe environments that allow girls, young women, LGBTQ+ young people and other groups that are vulnerable to harassment to fully express themselves and play their rightful role in shaping the modern world,” says Albrectsen.

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