Almost half of all girls in the UK have experienced some form of harassment or abuse on social media, according to a survey of more than 1,000 young people. The poll also showed that 40% of boys have received harassment online.
The survey, conducted by Opinium for the children’s charity Plan International UK, involved 1,002 young people aged between 11 and 18. Of the respondents, 235 out of 486 girls reported online abuse, compared with 202 of 510 boys.
Plan International UK said that while its findings highlighted pressure on all young people, it noted that the type of abuse received differed between genders. The charity called for more to be done to tackle sexism in the online world.
Lucy Russell, campaign manager at Plan International, said: “What we did find is the nature of abuse differs, and if you look at what girls are experiencing offline, for example, street sexual harassment, that is being echoed in the online world. So girls are being told what to wear, how to look, to shut up about their opinions … That really stood out for us.”
Russell said: “We can see there are pressures on all young people online and they all need support, but what we also found from research and previous work on girls rights in the UK … is that across the board, the situation is different for girls, and we do need to look at gender and sexism in the online world as specific.”
The poll showed nearly double the number of girls (23%) said they felt harassed regularly by someone through social media, compared with 13% of boys. A higher proportion – 20% compared with 13% of boys – also said that they felt threatened by a comment online.
A large percentage of both boys and girls – 73% and 59% respectively – reported that they had changed their behaviour online in a bid to stem criticism. Both sexes received abusive comments on posts, with a higher number of girls being forced to block people. Girls were also more likely to stop taking part in a debate or conversation online for fear of being criticised.
Social media had a greater impact on how girls see themselves, the survey found. Almost half of girls admitted that they felt pressure from social media to look or act a certain way, compared with nearly one in three boys (29%).
Natasha Devon, the writer, campaigner and former mental health champion for schools, said: “There is a reason why girls report higher levels of dissatisfaction after using social media. It’s partly to do with what people who fall at the feminine end of the gender spectrum tend to seek online, ie validation and approval, and partly because social media is a much more hostile and aggressive place if you are a woman. There is a cumulative concentrated effort to silence the female voice.”
She added: “Evidence shows cyberbullying can have a profound effect because it never disappears. We can return again and again to the words and they hurt us anew, and also because we read them in our own voice. We need to stop saying, ‘Don’t be on social media if you don’t like it’ or brushing misogyny off as ‘harmless banter’ and ‘freedom of speech’, and make a concentrated effort to transform social media into a place where girls can feel safe.”
Earlier this year, the government made sex and relationship education compulsory in all secondary schools in England. Pupils could be taught the new curriculum from September 2019, the Department for Education said.
The charity released the findings as it launched its #girlsbelonghere campaign, which it is calling to be integrated into sex and relationship education in schools.
Russell said: “We want to see the digital world incorporated into the new relationships and sex education curriculum out in 2019. Issues such as consent and having a healthy relationship need to be addressed more thoroughly in the curriculum and how relationships are lived online. We are asking that the curriculum includes that.”
Leading UK child protection charity the NSPCC said the survey findings tallied with what young people contacting its Childline counselling helpline were reporting. “This survey reflects what we are seeing at Childline, with more and more children and teenagers seeking help after suffering online bullying. Worryingly, four out of five young people have also told the NSPCC that social media companies aren’t doing enough to protect them from harassment and hatred on their sites.
“It is up to both the government and social media companies to make the online world a safer place for our young people, while parents should also be having regular conversations with their children about staying safe online.
“Social media, sexting, online porn and dating apps did not exist when sex education became a part of the school curriculum a generation ago. These seismic changes need to be reflected in sex and relationships education in every school.”
Calvin Robinson, head of computer science at St Mary’s and St John’s School in Hendon in London, stressed that boys and young men also faced online harassment and abuse. He said boys and young men needed to be encouraged to speak up about emotional problems in a bid to reduce suicides – the biggest single killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.
The poll follows a study last year by Girlguiding UK which found that a third of seven- to 10-year-old girls believed that they were judged on their appearance, and a quarter felt the need to be perfect.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government is investing more than £4m in anti-bullying projects and has introduced new cyber-bullying guidance which provides advice for schools on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying. We will soon be consulting on the range of issues which should be included in the updated relationship and sexual education guidance.”