Most girls and young women using social media have experienced abuse that has driven them offline and left them traumatised, according to a new global survey.
More than half of the 14,000 15- to 25-year-olds interviewed by Plan International said they had been cyberstalked, sent explicit messages and images, or abused online.
Plan said it is a global problem and that social media companies had left girls to deal with online violence on their own.
The interviewees, from 22 countries, said no action was taken when they reported abuse.
“These attacks may not be physical, but they are often threatening, relentless and limit girls’ freedom of expression,” said Plan’s CEO Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen. “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.”
The research found about 20% of girls had been forced off social media and another 12% had changed how they used it after receiving online violence.
Almost 40% said they had been attacked on Facebook, but interviewees also spoke about similar problems on all other platforms, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter and TikTok.
The survey showed that many of the girls were targeted because of their race or identity. More than a third of interviewees who received abuse were from an ethnic minority and 56% identified as LGBTQ+.
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Attacks consisted of abusive language, threats of sexual violence and body shaming. A quarter felt physically unsafe as a result.
“I had to take medication to be calm and many times I had to be sedated to be able to calm down,” feminist activist Nadiuska, 19, from Nicaragua, told Plan.
She said she had been insulted and received death threats, often from anonymous accounts.
Plan’s report said abusers often get around punishments by creating new accounts.
“Women close to me have been involved in circles of violence that are terrible, from having intimate information spread to death threats,” she said.
In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women called for governments to create new laws that protect women in online spaces, based on rights to expression, privacy and freedom from violence.
Plan, which promotes girls’ rights, echoed the call, urging governments to create laws that hold social media companies to account for abuses on their platforms, as well as ensuring their own harassment laws are enforced against online violence.
“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,” said Albrectsen.