It's tragic that girls are censoring themselves online to avoid abuse

Tanya Barron
Plan International UK has found that girls are suffering increasing abuse online (posed by model) - PA

The truisms we hear about social media and the online world are plentiful – and often more negative than positive. The internet been around for long enough now that we all know it’s an echo chamber, full of trolls, and that you can’t always trust what you see.

But can we really say we understand? We hear lots about social media’s shortcomings – but do we ever stop to consider what they really mean - especially for children and young people? And particularly when it comes to the differing experiences of boys and girls. 

Research by the girls' rights charity Plan International UK, of which I am chief executive, has been doing just that. And this week, we published some worrying new data. 

The prejudice and discrimination that girls and women have long endured in the offline world has seamlessly transferred online

We spoke to 1,002 secondary school boys and girls in the UK - and found a striking trend. Across the board, girls report that they are labouring under the pressures of social media more than boys.

Nearly half of girls have blocked social media users after suffering harassment. Almost three quarters, aged 11 to 18, have taken some form of action to avoid criticism online. This could include receiving upsetting direct messages, having images shared without their consent, or feeling harassed through regular contact.

Our survey showed that 48 per cent of girls had experienced some form of harassment or abuse on social media, compared to 40 per cent of boys. While almost half (45 per cent) of the girls told us that social media makes them feel like they have to look or act a certain way, or that their posts online should make them look attractive. Significantly more girls (54 per cent) are comparing themselves to others on social media than boys (38 per cent).

Girls are censoring themselves online, says chariyt Plan International UK

It shows that girls are self-censoring on social media, amid a rise in online abuse. Last year a study by the NSPCC showed that the number of children and young people tormented by online trolls has increased by 88 per cent in five years.

Without doubt – and let me be very clear on this – Plan International UK's research shows that boys do struggle with the effects of social media. That’s not to be downplayed. But the overall pattern was  clear: girls were more likely to have experienced every single type of negative online experience.

Scanning through the results of our survey made for grim reading. Because we knew this was the confirmation of a trend that our earlier research had hinted at.

The prejudice and discrimination that girls and women have long endured in the offline world has seamlessly transferred online. Predictable? Yes. And so all the more tragic that we’ve failed to stop it.

Social media may no longer be ‘new' but it’s a space we still have an opportunity to shape

Yet what angered me more were the responses to the next set of questions we asked the young people. We were keen to understand how they respond when they experience abuse or criticism online. And for too many girls, that response is to withdraw and be silenced.

A third of the girls we spoke to said they’d decided not to take part in an online conversation for fear of being criticised. That compares to just over a fifth of boys. And 36 per cent say they’ve thought of a post but decided not to publish it, compared to a quarter of boys. Tragically, 13 per cent of girls say they’ve stopped going online altogether to avoid criticism.

And so we see that one of sexism’s saddest and most longstanding trends – the shutting down and silencing of female voices – is being repeated online. Abuse and criticism prompt self-censorship, and an age-old pattern continues. The echo chamber risks have a distinctly male timbre.

Top tips | How to stay safe on social media

It is time to fight back. Social media may no longer be ‘new’, but as a space of inherent renewal driven primarily by young people, it’s a space we still have an opportunity to shape.

As the source of much public and political conversation, it is our responsibility to ensure girls and young women have a stake in that. That’s why this week Plan International UK launched the #girlsbelonghere campaign - asking your views on how we tackle the problem. One opportunity is to ensure that the newly designed curriculum on sex and relationships, due for roll-out in September 2019, includes a significant component on the digital world.

Our research also showed us that girls value social media as a space where they can meet people, share ideas and pursue their interests. So the glimmer of light here is that if we get it right, we can turn the digital world into a tool which redresses gender inequality - as opposed to entrenches it.