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Reclaim the internet for girls

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Girls are withdrawing from the digital space and in turn losing their voice.

Research by Plan UK, a children’s charity striving to advance children’s rights and equality for girls all over the world, has shown clearly that, just as in the offline world, harassment and bullying online is gendered.

It can be threats of sexual violence, comments about appearance or what constitutes ‘acceptable behaviour’, or telling them not to speak out and have an opinion – but the abuse girls face is different than that boys face.

The research also showed some worrying patterns in how people respond when girls tell them about it.

Just as women are told not to walk alone or go out after dark when a sexual offence happens in their local area, girls are being told ‘close your Twitter account’ or ‘you shouldn’t have taken that photo or used that hashtag’.

As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, brilliantly explains, girls are told ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ – a theme Plan UK also explored in their full paper on girls in the digital world.

It’s the same message over and over again – you – the girl – have done something wrong and are to blame.

And whether it is on the streets or online, girls are being offered solutions that do not come from the point of view that they have a right to be safe, or even to be there at all.

Plan UK’s new survey found that nearly half (48 per cent) of girls aged 11-18 in the UK have experienced some form of harassment or abuse on social media, while nearly three quarters (73 per cent) have taken specific actions to avoid being criticised online.

The findings, based on a survey commissioned by girls’ rights charity Plan International UK, have prompted fears that girls are being forced to withdraw from social media due to fear of criticism, harassment or abuse.

Plan UK has now launched the #girlsbelonghere campaign to tackle the problem.

Boys are significantly less likely than girls to experience abuse, with 40 per cent reporting a negative experience.

They are also less likely (59 per cent) to take evasive actions to avoid being criticised such as refraining from posting on social media or holding back their opinions.

The survey, in which research agency Opinium spoke to 1,002 young people aged 11-18, suggests that while at times it can be an inspiring and empowering space, the online world can also feel isolating and threatening – especially for girls and young women.

Of those surveyed:

43 per cent of girls admitted to holding back their opinions on social media for fear of being criticised;

29 per cent of girls have received upsetting or abusive messages from someone they know in person, compared with 21 per cent of boys;

23 per cent of girls have felt harassed by someone contacting them regularly on social media, compared with 13 per cent of boys;

20 per cent of girls have felt threatened by what someone has said to them online, compared with 13 per cent of boys; and

22 per cent of girls have received abusive comments on a status or photo they have posted, compared to 18 per cent of boys.

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 per cent said they had taken some form of action to avoid criticism on social media, compared with 59 per cent of boys.

The evasive actions taken included:

43 per cent of girls have blocked people on social media, compared with a third of boys;

34 per cent of girls have not taken part in a debate or conversation online for fear of being criticised, compared with 22 per cent of boys;

36 per cent of girls have thought of a social media post but not written it, compared with a quarter of boys; and

13 per cent of girls have stopped going on social media altogether to avoid criticism.

Ambrin, 15, from London, a member of Plan International UK’s Youth Advisory Panel, said: “I used to have a feminist account with my friends and often got quite violent spam from trolls online. It was very much about gender as opposed to what we were saying.

“I think it’s really horrible because you’re just trying to share your opinion, and I think it means that you try to not involve yourself so much in debates, you just stay within a network of people who agree with you because if you start getting into debates with people who don’t share your opinion then it can deteriorate quite quickly and you can end up hiding from it.”

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.”

“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,” Barron continued.

“The digital space is a vital arena for girls to become active citizens, express their views and campaign for changes they want to see and we all have a duty to make online communities inclusive and respectful for girls.”

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 – to 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,” Barron pointed out.

“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.”

Plan UK 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,” Barron said. “The international guidance on children’s rights needs to reflect that.”

“We’re calling on every one to stand up for girls online, calling out abuse when we see it and encouraging a space in which girls can find their voice without feeling threatened,” she continued.

“The future is digital and we must assert girls’ and young women’s right to be a part of it.”

To find out more about Plan International UK’s #girlsbelongonline campaign, click here.

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