Free to be online?

By Maria Holsopple
November 30, 2020

More than half of girls say they are harassed and abused online.

This key finding comes from a recent Plan International survey of 14,000 girls in 22 countries. And the abuse happens just because they are girls. It gets worse when they exercise their voices and speak-up about issues that matter to them.

COVID-19 has moved more of our lives online, but being online is not safe for girls. Not only does the harassment invade their hearts and minds, leaving them with less confidence, it also threatens their physical safety. Perpetrators threaten rape and physical violence, making the experience of being online eerily similar to walking down the street as a female.

“Social media can be a really amazing place to, for example, speak out and share information,” a young woman in Chile shared. “But also, it can be really horrible place, I don’t know, crazy people can have an anonymous place to throw shade and hate.”

So, what can be done? The conversation cannot simply revolve around what girls can do to protect themselves. This behavior is not their fault. Solutions must come from conversations about what social media companies, governments and greater society will do. Girls demand that …

    1. The issue be taken seriously.
    2. Effective and accessible reporting mechanisms be created.
    3. Perpetrators be held to account.
    4. Disaggregated data be collected that acknowledges girls’ intersecting identities and tracks the scale and size of the problem.

As for the international development community, COVID-19 has pushed toward online solutions. While these innovations can be effective, we must ensure that safeguarding is a primary focus. Girls have a right to be protected from violence no matter how a project is being delivered.

What else did the survey say about online harassment? A few highlights include …

– Ninety-eight percent of girls and young women surveyed said they use social media, and 75% say they post frequently or very frequently.

– WhatsApp is the most widely-used platform, followed by Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and WeChat.

– Fifty-eight percent of girls report personally being harassed.

– Of that harassment, 77% is threats of physical violence, 67% is abusive and insulting language, 59% is threats of sexual violence and 53% is body shaming and purposeful embarrassment, followed by a number of other areas.

–  Harassment is worse if you are Black, identify as LBGTIQ+ or have a disability.

You can read more findings in the report to understand who the perpetrators are and the impact that online abuse and harassment has on girls and young women, as well as how they are dealing with those effects.

In response to the survey findings, Instagram has teamed up with Plan to hold a series of listening sessions with girls around the world. The insights from these sessions will be shared with Facebook and WhatsApp, giving social media companies the opportunity to hear directly from girls about their lived experiences and determine how the platforms can invest in keeping girls safe while making their voices heard. The results of the listening sessions will be shared in spring 2021.



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