Gender-based violence online: A young person’s perspective

March 10, 2023
March 10, 2023
~5 min read

Written by Luna Silvana Abadía, Plan International USA Youth Advisory Board and U.S. Public Delegate to CSW67

Sometimes it feels like I live, breathe and dream through technology. Technology is inextricably linked with my social, academic, economic and personal lives, especially as a young person. Growing up with the dominance of social media platforms is like a roller coaster of unpredictability. One moment, it can be exhilarating or comforting — and the next, isolating and harmful.

As a young girl, I stepped blindly into the world of social media and technology. This came with challenging experiences, including being harassed by a male schoolmate for two years because of my gender. These challenges never cease. In ways big and small, my generation deals with online harassment, hyper-sexualization, doxing, misinformation and more. For LGBTQI+ and nonbinary youth especially, online gender-based violence, or GBV, is a harmful but normalized reality.

Two girls in Haiti look at a computer screen as they engage in online activities to learn more about careers in STEM.
Girls in Haiti engage in online activities to learn more about careers in STEM for Information and Communications Technology, ICT, Day.

Social media has facilitated youth activism, fueling virtual meetings, global networks, systemic outreach and passionate communication. During COVID-19, I attended Plan International USA’s Youth Leadership Academy virtually, an experience that would not have been possible without online platforms. Social media allowed me to recruit a global team for a climate organization I created, and to organize livestreams after advocating at the COP26 climate conference, sharing my learnings with a broader audience of youth.

However, experiencing harassment online directly impacts my mental health, interpersonal relations and agency, as well as that of other youth activists. Online GBV threatens to silence our voices.

Plan USA’s research found that 58% of young women experience online harassment and abuse. Technology platforms allow harassment towards women and girls to be relentless. It permeates our safest of places — our homes, our alone time. The plethora of apps available allow perpetrators to message from many platforms at once, compounding a cacophony of harassment.

Platform algorithms are built to elicit reactions and interactions, which means online behavior follows the “power law” — users who spend more time, such as dedicated activists, consequently receive more attention, both good and bad. Young people learn to respond to these challenges by shaping how we present ourselves online. Yet this leads to self-censoring, or even complete disengagement from social media, as 12% of online GBV victims reported doing when surveyed by Plan.

Technology companies are like the public utilities of today, being essential to our lives. Yet, they are subjected to little oversight through law and regulations. Criticism of platform regulation in the U.S. tends to fall back on the dangers of infringing on first amendment rights; yet it is clear that inaction on online GBV can further limit free speech and the capacity for personal expression.

Given the importance of these issues, Plan’s youth advocates are closely engaged in and following the developments of the Agreed Conclusions at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW67. I echo and stand in solidarity with the demands made by the Plan’s SheLeads Youth Advocacy Cohort, which deserve thorough reading and implementation. Particularly, demands 2, 7, 8, 9 and 11 regarding online GBV must be addressed:

2. We demand member states to institutionalize and ensure meaningful and safe participation of girls and young women in all of their diversity in policymaking processes concerning innovation, technology and online safety, as well as other decisions shaping their digital experiences and interactions and affecting their lives.

7. We particularly call upon member states to treat digital education as a tool for realizing the right to education for all, not an end goal by itself; ensure digitalization of education is accompanied by adequate safeguards to mitigate risks, including equitable access, privacy, data protection and safety, that can be detrimental to the rights of girls and young women.

8. We urge member states to identify and address gaps in laws and policy frameworks that do not adequately recognize and address new technology-facilitated forms of gender-based violence, such as online harassment, abuse, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, unsolicited sending of obscene images and doxing; bring legal clarity to the definitions and handling of all forms of online violence and clarify the responsibilities of internet intermediaries, platforms, regulatory authorities and law enforcement in addressing it, ensuring effective enforcement mechanisms and access to justice for victims.

9. We demand member states to provide children, young people and parents with gender transformative educational programs on digital citizenship, digital safety and security, digital literacy, and other relevant subjects to support children and young people to learn about their rights in the digital environment (including privacy and security); understand the wide range of online risks (including abuse, harassment, scams, false information and identity theft, among others) to avoid them turning into harms, and navigate safely, critically and responsibly in digital spaces.

11. We urge member states to strengthen legal and regulatory frameworks to ensure that technology companies and other corporations respect human rights, including the rights of girls and women, in the design and deployment of ICT-based technologies, digital products and services; undertake age and gender-responsive human rights due diligence, in compliance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; and identify and prevent rights impacts for girls and women that may arise from their products, services and business activities.

We want to ensure anyone — especially girls and marginalized groups — is able to make informed and intentional choices about their engagement with technology, and feels safe to use their voices in online spaces.

We know the tools exist to develop and implement better practices. What is lacking is incentive. Now is the time to enact policies that ensure appropriate accountability is placed on companies and institutions, and that proactive efforts are taken to expand research and regulation on online gender-based violence.