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Social media abuse affects almost half of girls in UK

Charity launches new campaign to tackle rise of online harassment

Mark Gould

Monday, 14 August 2017

Nearly half (48%) of girls aged 11-18 in the UK and two-fifths of boys have experienced some form of harassment or abuse on social media, a new survey has found.

The findings, based on a survey commissioned by girls’ rights charity Plan International UK, have prompted fears that young people, and girls in particular, are being forced to withdraw from social media due to fear of criticism, harassment or abuse. The charity today launches the #girlsbelonghere campaign to tackle the problem.

The survey revealed boys are significantly less likely than girls to experience abuse, with 40% reporting a negative experience. They are also less likely (59%) to take evasive actions to avoid being criticised such as refraining from posting on social media or holding back their opinions.

For the survey, research agency Opinium contacted 1,002 young people aged 11-18. Some 235 of the 486 girls and 202 of the 510 boys who responded reported online abuse.

Of those surveyed:

  • 43% of girls admitted to holding back their opinions on social media for fear of being criticised.
  • 29% of girls have received upsetting or abusive messages from someone they know in person, compared with 2% of boys.
  • 23% of girls have felt harassed by someone contacting them regularly on social media, compared with 13% of boys.
  • 20% of girls have felt threatened by what someone has said to them online, compared with 13% of boys.
  • 22% of girls have received abusive comments on a status or photo they have posted, compared to 18% of boys.

Tanya Barron, chief executive of Plan International UK, said: “Girls have previously told us that they face harassment in schools and are scared everyday on the street. This new survey now shows that what they’re experiencing in the physical world is spilling over into their digital world – and we mustn’t allow this to happen.

“Girls have a right to be online and it’s up to us to shape it to be a welcoming and empowering place for them to express themselves.”

The survey also revealed the lengths girls are going to in order to stop receiving abuse and criticism online. Out of the girls surveyed, 73% said they had taken some form of action such as blocking people, to avoid criticism on social media, compared with 59% of boys.

“What’s really concerning is that our research shows girls are self-censoring on social media for fear of backlash from others. By not taking part in conversations online, stopping themselves from writing posts or coming off social media entirely, they are withdrawing from the digital space and in turn losing their voice”, added Ms Barron.

Plan International UK is calling for the new sex and relationships education curriculum – due for consultation soon and set to be introduced in September 2019 – should include an emphasis on teaching young people, especially girls, about navigating digital spaces.

“The new curriculum presents a golden opportunity for the education our children receive to be brought into the 21st century,” added Ms Barron.

“Girls especially need to learn about some of the risks of social media, but in parallel we must ensure that they understand that they have a right to a voice online, and that it’s all our responsibility to keep them safe.”

The charity is also backing calls for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to fully recognise children’s rights in the online world.

“The offline and online worlds are no longer separate for young people,” said Ms Barron. “The international guidance on children’s rights needs to reflect that.”

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