UK teens experience huge spike in online harm

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Scale of social media harassment and abuse increased during Covid - report

A new report highlights the scale of online harm being faced by young people in the UK, and details how the Covid-19 pandemic turned a torrent of online discrimination, hate and abuse into a social media tsunami.

The research report, Young People's Experiences of Technology Facilitated Gender-Based Violence During Covid-19, to be released on Friday, 26 January, was led by Professor Tanya Horeck of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), along with Professor Jessica Ringrose and Betsy Milne of Institute of Education, University College London's Faculty of Education and Society, and Dr Kaitlynn Mendes of Western University, Canada.

The researchers surveyed 551 UK teenagers (aged 13-18), as well as teachers, school safeguarding leads and parents, and carried out interviews at schools and online.

The report found that 78% of those surveyed experienced at least one type of technology-facilitated harm, which included body shaming, online harassment, public outing of their sexuality, and image based sexual abuse, and 99% of these participants reported that incidents increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The young people surveyed in the summer of 2021 were avid social media users, with 89% having at least one type of social media account. Instagram was the most popular amongst this age group (83%), followed by Snapchat (72%) and TikTok (65%), and 96% of the teenagers said they spent more time online during Covid-19.

The report found that 59% of respondents experienced at least one form of activity categorised as technology-facilitated gender-based violence, with 27% receiving unwanted sexual messages online, such as via Instagram DMs and Snapchat messages, while 17% were sent flattering messages, for example relating to their looks or maturity, by an adult stranger, and this increased by 55% during Covid.

In the qualitative research, several participants, particularly girls, described receiving increased unwanted sexual messages and comments from adult men during lockdown. This unwanted contact often came in the form of messages, requests, "likes" and comments on Instagram from adult men, which girls described as "creepy" and "weird".

Regarding unsolicited sexual images, 23% of young people had received a sexual photo or video that they did not want since Covid-19 started, 83% said this activity had increased during Covid, and the majority of the images (54%) were sent by someone 18 or over.

And the research found that 11% of the participants had experienced activity classed as sexual exploitation and coercion. This included online threats of a sexual nature, for example rape threats, and being blackmailed or coerced into engaging in sexual acts.

The study also found that sexual and gender diverse young people experienced higher rates of some forms of online harm compared to cisgendered and heterosexual teens, with 40% of sexual minorities (compared to 8.4% of heterosexual youth) experiencing sexuality-based harassment, which included offensive or degrading messages, comments or "jokes" about their sexual orientation, or being "outed".

Lead author Tanya Horeck, Professor of Film and Feminist Media Studies at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

"As our research has found, online harm is rife for young people and it encompasses a wide range of practices. At the same time, for many young people, social media platforms provide much needed social sustenance, often acting as a 'lifeline' to peers, and this was particularly true during the Covid-19 pandemic when face-to-face social contact was limited.

"We found that most young people do not report experiences of online harm, but either try to deal with it themselves or discuss it with friends. Most don't report because they feel that reporting would not help. Only one in five young people told their parents, a barrier being a fear their parents wouldn't understand or would overreact, and only 3% reported to schools. The main reasons they don't report issues to social media sites is because they are either unaware of reporting mechanisms or are disillusioned with the platforms' ability to take action.

"While girls and gender and sexual minorities face the higher rates of online harm, there are significant findings around boys that need to be addressed. Boys were often targeted via gaming platforms, porn bots, and other fake accounts. They also received unsolicited sexual images and pressure to send nudes. While boys are often reticent to talk about their experiences as either perpetrators or victims of these practices, engaging boys in these conversations is crucial if we are to challenge gender-based violence.

"Directives to young people to 'just turn off your devices' or 'it happened online and isn't part of real life' are not fit for purpose. Policymakers, educators, and other stakeholders need to recognise that we are now in a postdigital society where online and offline experiences of harms are not easily separated."

The forms of harm identified in this new Covid-19 report continue to be an issue in schools. As new forms of technology-facilitated violence emerge, including the recent rise of AI deep fake nudes, teachers and schools are in desperate need of better support. A second new report, authored by Ringrose and Mendes, provides details of workshops designed to help schools reduce sexual violence.

Professor Ringrose said:

"Early digital sex education is an essential preventative measure in reducing gender and sexual based harm. Learning about the law, consent and their rights around sexual violence, including how these apply in online contexts, helps to safeguard and support young people both on screens and at school.

"We found that a shocking 55% of young people aged 13-15 had never learned about the issue of sexual violence in school prior to the workshops. We also found that 89% of students and 95% of teachers felt the workshops had increased their understandings of the topic equipping them with better tools to respond, including young people learning about being an active bystander."

The two reports will be presented on Friday, 26 January during a conference held at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge. Amongst the speakers are Professor Sonia Livingstone (LSE), a world-renowned expert on children's rights in the digital age, Director of Digital Futures for Children and co-author of a new book Parenting for a Digital Future: How hopes and fears about technology shape children's lives (Oxford University Press).

Other speakers include Professor Vanita Sundaram (University of York), leader of the Centre for Research in Education and Social Justice and Dr Emily Setty (University of Surrey), a criminologist and an expert on sexting ethics and consent in youth digital culture. The conference can be attended in person or online, and further information is available here.

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