Girls and young women worldwide are demanding urgent action from social media companies after a survey revealed that 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 and a series of in-depth interviews of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 from 22 countries.
The largest study of its kind, it found girls who use social media in high and low-income countries alike are routinely subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of abuse, and reporting tools are ineffective in stopping it.
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.
Angela Muriithi, Plan International Zimbabwe county director, said while the research was gathered in conversation with more than 14,000 girls across multiple continents, they share similar experiences of harassment and discrimination that resonate with experiences of girls and young women in Zimbabwe.
“The effect is that girls end up withdrawing from online platforms because of fear and intimidation and resultantly missing out on educational and other opportunities,” Muriithi said.
“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.”
Muriithi said it was up to digital platforms to step up and protect their users as the Covid-19 pandemic was driving more lives online and with internet access around the world improving.
She said the most common types 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%).