More than half of girls and young women have been harassed or abused on social media platforms, according to new research from Plan International.
Attacks were most common on Facebook, where 39% said they have suffered harassment. However, abuse was found to occur on every platform, including Instagram (23%), WhatsApp (14%), Snapchat (10%), Twitter (9%) and TikTok (6%).
Plan International, who is now calling for “urgent action” from social media groups, said its latest research is based on a survey of 14,000 girls aged 15-25 in 22 countries, as well as a series of in-depth interviews.
The study found that girls who use social media in both high and low-income countries are “routinely subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of abuse, and reporting tools are ineffective in stopping it”.
Online violence has led to nearly 19% of those who have been harassed “stopping or significantly reducing” their use of the platform on which it happened, while a further 12% have “changed the way they express themselves”.
Abuse was also found to damage girls’ lives offline, with 22% of those surveyed saying theirselves or a friend have been “left fearing for their physical safety”, while 44% say social media companies need to “do more to protect them”.
Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International, said: “Although this research was gathered in conversation with more than 14,000 girls across multiple continents, they share similar experiences of harassment and discrimination.
“These attacks may not be physical, but they are often threatening, relentless, and limit girls’ freedom of expression. Driving girls out of online spaces is hugely disempowering in an increasingly digital world, and damages their ability to be seen, heard and become leaders.”
She added: “Disappointingly, they are being left to deal with online violence on their own, with profound consequences for their confidence and wellbeing. With COVID-19 driving more of our lives online and with internet access around the world improving, it is time for digital platforms to step up and protect their users.”
The research was carried out as part of Girls Get Equal, Plan International’s global campaign for a “world where girls and young women have the power to be leaders and shape the world around them”.
As part of the campaign, girls around the world have written an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter calling on them to create stronger and more effective ways to report abuse and harassment.
Plan International is also asking governments worldwide to implement specific laws to deal with online gender-based violence and ensure girls who suffer it have access to justice.
Albrectsen added: “Social media companies have the power to make change.
“They must do more to tackle harmful behaviour and ensure that their platforms are safe environments that allow girls, young women, LGBTQ+ young people and other groups that are vulnerable to harassment to fully express themselves and play their rightful role in shaping the modern world.”