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%).
Our latest research is based on a survey of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries, including Brazil, Benin, the USA and India, and a series of in-depth interviews.
Girls receive explicit messages
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 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.
Driving girls offline
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, said: “Although this research was gathered in conversation with more than 14,000 girls across multiple continents, they share similar experiences of harassment and discrimination.
they are being left to deal with online violence on their own, with profound consequences for their confidence and wellbeing.
“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.”
Social media is a significant part of girls' lives
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, while more than half (56%) of those who identify as LGBTIQ+ say they are harassed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
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.
In the words of one young woman, 18, from Nepal: “Social media is very important these days, and I often keep using for three to four hours a day.”
However, this leaves girls vulnerable to new forms of abuse, with 50% saying online harassment is more common than street harassment.
Harassment takes profound toll on girls' wellbeing
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.
I used to get a lot of messages from boys asking me to send nudes
“Or just generally talking, like saying bad words to me. At that young age it was, honestly, horrible. So, it was the worst time in my life, using social media. Between the age of 9 and 14.”
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.
Another girl from Ecuador, 17, who was interviewed for the study said: “I would block but he would create more profiles and keep sending me pictures of me.”
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.
Girls are calling for action to end online abuse
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.
Ms Albrectsen continued: “Social media companies have the power to make change.”
“They must do more to tackle harmful behaviour and ensure that 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.”