It's time we stopped telling girls to get offline
“I was once told that my opinion was invalid due to being overweight… I didn’t seek help after it because I didn’t know where to go. I told my Mum and she said to ignore it, but it still hurt for no good reason.” – Aless, 18
Aless’ story isn't unique. As soon as you start a conversation with girls about life online, stories of being trolled, sexually harassed, threatened or humiliated come up.
It was such a strong theme in our 2016 report, ‘The State of Girls’ Rights in the UK’, we knew that we needed to do more. When we asked girls for their stories, we were inundated with examples of the sexism, harassment and threats they have to put up with every day.
Meanwhile, our survey with research agency Opinium shows that:
- 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.
- 22 per cent of girls have received abusive comments on a status or photo they have posted, compared to 18 per cent of boys.*
Abuse that’s different for girls
Our research makes it clear 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 – the abuse is different for girls.
Our research also shows some worrying patterns in how people respond. 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’.
It’s the same message over and over again – you – the girl - have done something wrong and are to blame. And whether it’s on the streets or online, girls are being offered solutions that don’t come from the point of view that they have a right to be safe, or even to be there at all.
For Mary Beard, the English scholar and classicist who frequently experiences abuse online, this is why she doesn’t block her opponents. As she explains: “it’s rather too much like what women have been advised to do for centuries. Don’t answer back and just turn away."
Similarly Ambrin, a member of our Youth Advisory Panel, describes her experience of setting up a feminist website with her friends.
“Often we’d get quite violent spam from trolls online and it was very much about our gender as opposed to what we were saying," she says.
“I think it’s really horrible because you feel like you’re always hiding. Because you’re scared of what people might say you’re less likely to vocalise your opinion in everyday life.”
Every girl has a right to be online
For girls, life online isn’t separate from other parts of their lives. It’s essential for finding work and building skills. It’s also at the heart of girls’ social lives, a space where they can engage with politics and citizenship and have a voice.
But right now, the international rights framework for children doesn’t explain how these rights should work online – and it’s not meeting girls’ needs.
As our survey shows, girls are being held back and silenced in the digital world: almost half of girls – 48 percent – have withheld their opinions on social media for fear of being criticised, compared with 38 per cent of boys.
This silencing, alongside the threats, harassment and grooming girls are facing, makes an urgent case for improving girls’ rights online. And we know the will is there.
Growing Up Digital, the report by The Office for the English Children’s Commissioner, explained how vital it is that we recognise children’s lives are being lived online. Building on this, Sonia Livingstone, Professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, made the case for a new UN framework for children’s digital rights.
A unique opportunity to have your say
This all points to the fact that it’s time to act. We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the UN that countries around the world need guidance on how to prioritise girls’ rights online, and how to protect the rights of all young people in the digital space.
That’s why we’re asking young people, their parents and families across the UK to take part in our survey, to tell the UN why girls belong online.
Together, we can make the most compelling case possible – and stop girls being silenced.
*All statistics are from a survey conducted by Opinium for Plan UK, who asked 1,002 11-18 year olds across the UK about their experiences of social media.
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