We live in a digital age and people growing up now are digital natives. The internet plays an essential role in the lives of young people, not just in their learning and education but in their friendships and relationships. It is a means of communication, connection, and self-expression.
However, cyberspace has become yet another place where women and girls are targeted for abuse and harassment. The very accessibility and anonymity of digital media has made cyberspace a hunting ground for perpetrators of violence against women (VAW). During the COVID-19 pandemic, as more people use the internet with greater frequency, women and girls have been exposed to even higher levels of violence through the internet, social media platforms, and email. Reports have indicated doubling of online VAW and even a 700% increase of online VAW in a specific area in Pennsylvania, USA within a 20-day period in 2020.
A study in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that out of 1015 students surveyed, over 300 between the ages of 11 and 19 had experienced sexual harassment through social media. In this scenario, only 60% of these cases were reported, and only 18 resulted in any action taken.
In cases like these, an active bystander can challenge the social norms and attitudes that encourage toxic masculinity and gender stereotyping of women and girls, and take action to respond to or prevent an incident of VAW. This means teens standing up and stepping forward to help their peers and to prevent and stop VAW online. The 16 strategies and ideas listed below focuses on actions that teens can undertake safely to help keep their female peers safe online. While not all of the suggestions in this may be suitable for every teenager, we hope that this will be a useful starting point.
Introduction Suloshini Jahanath and Anushia Kandasivam. Written and researched by Suloshini Jahanath with additional content and research by Anushia Kandasivam.
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Teens Preventing Online VAW #1: Know what online VAW is
You can’t intervene if you don’t know what online VAW is. It is easy to spot, from trivialising sexual assault on social media accounts, or trolling women who call out sexual harassment with threats and sexual innuendo. Other forms of abuse can include stalking and revenge porn (the act of distributing sexually explicit images or videos of individuals without their consent). Check out online resources that provide information about online VAW, including KidsHelpline. If you know what you’re looking for, it will make it easier to intervene and prevent it.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #2: Connect and engage with your peers
Take the opportunity to have an open and honest discussion with your peers about why it’s not okay to harass or bully women and girls online. Cite examples of cases like the 2012 Steubenville rape case, where the perpetrators shared what they did on their social media accounts and via texts to their friends. Invite your peers to join you in following anti-VAW social media pages and accounts, and take part in online discussions on stopping online VAW.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #3: Encourage your peers to educate themselves
Point your peers towards training programmes that educate them about respectful relationships. For example, the City of Adelaide in Australia has just started offering ‘I’m Not Ok With That’ – Step Up for Gender Equality workshop, designed to educate participants about positive bystander intervention and the importance of stepping up for gender equality and actively preventing VAW. Or Love Bites, a programme that aims to provide young people with a safe environment to examine, discuss, and explore respectful relationships. There are a tonne of workshops, resources, and readings available online to help you get started.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #4: Spread the online love
Use the speed and reach of social media for the good, and share with your social networks great ways to intervene and prevent online VAW. If you come across a great article or resource on ways to prevent VAW, share it. If you see a video that highlights bystander intervention, share it. If you hear an anti-VAW song, share it. Basically, like and share anything that will raise awareness about VAW.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #5: Practise what you preach
If you have social media accounts, a website, a YouTube channel, or a blog, make sure that none of these have any form of online VAW. It can be as simple as deleting a comment on your Facebook status update that is sexist or misogynistic, or it can be as major as a rape joke – which is never funny. Don’t contribute to negative behaviours happening online. If you are serious about being an online ally, make sure your behaviour reflects that.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #6: Talk to a trusted adult
If you witness online VAW but aren’t comfortable stepping in yourself, talk to a trusted adult. Talking to parents about these things may not always be easy. UNICEF recommends: choosing a time when you have their full attention, explaining what you’ve seen and heard and how it is affecting the target and you, and asking them to step in. If you feel you can’t speak to your parents, go to a teacher, counsellor, coach, or close family member. If you are not comfortable talking to someone you know, look for a helpline in your country so that you can talk to a professional counsellor. These are people who are trained to listen to you and give you advice that will help you and the person being targeted.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #7: Un-like, Unfollow
If you’re following or like a social media account/page/profile that has made offensive comments or spews hateful and toxic rhetoric about women and girls, attempt to engage and educate them about why it’s wrong to espouse VAW. If this doesn’t work, make sure you don’t like these comments or posts. To make a bigger statement, unfollow them or even consider blocking them (and tell your friends!). Before you do this, it could be helpful to collect evidence – screenshots of social media posts, for example – to show what’s been going on.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #8: Check your school policy
Chances are high that your school has a policy on online harassment and bullying. So if you see it happening online, you can report it offline. Check your school’s website and social media platforms for the guidelines. It will not only list the rules of how to behave online but also information about your rights in school, and how to report online harassment and abuse. If you can’t find any written guidelines, ask your teacher, counsellor, or principal. Or, get together with your friends and demand that the school create a policy.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #9: Report it!
Just like schools, most social media sites have policies in place to respond to offensive comments and/or hate speech. If you see misogynistic, sexist comments and behaviour that promote anti-VAW sentiments, don’t hesitate to click on that little button that says “Report”. Make them understand that violence against women and girls is never okay. Reporting it early stops it from getting out of hand, and can even lead to action by the authorities if it does. Just this year, eight people were arrested in the UK after Twitter users reported a torrent of online abuse against a footballer. Your intervention does help.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #10: Make VAW ‘un-cool’
While VAW has never been “cool”, the unfortunate reality is that many online VAW cases happening in schools have been perpetrated by the “in crowd”, using social media to bully and harass others. Connect and engage with them to educate them on the many reasons that VAW is unacceptable. Make it clear by your reactions and conversations that VAW is just not cool. Teach them about being allies and what they can do to prevent and stop online VAW.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #11: Safety in numbers
If one specific group of your peers is targeting someone, chances are they have done this before. If you’re comfortable enough to do it, form an online group with others who have witnessed or have been targets of online VAW. Talk to them and work together to step in and intervene when witnessing online VAW. This will not just help the current target, but also has the added benefit of arming everyone in the group with the knowledge that they have back-up, and they are not alone.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #12: Challenge the double standard and stereotyping of women and girls
If you find yourself in the middle of a discussion slut-shaming a girl while also espousing the sexual prowess of the perpetrator, challenge the patriarchal stereotype. You can be the one who breaks the silence and makes people think; the one who makes sure that any space is safe for everyone. Remind your peers that the blame should always be placed on the perpetrator, not the victim. It shouldn’t matter if she was intoxicated and if she was dressed provocatively. It is never the victim’s fault.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #13: Reach out
If you’ve witnessed online violence against a woman or a girl, reach out to her. Provide her with support, listen to her, and work with her to come up with the best course of action moving forward. Make sure she knows that you will support her decision and will be there for her. If you feel safe and comfortable enough to do so, show your solidarity publicly. One positive act amongst a host of negative ones will stand out.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #14: See something, say something
If you see non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos, call them out. If you see a girl or woman being exploited, coerced, or threatened, call them out. If you see bullying, sexualised or not, call them out. If you see unwanted sexual attention being forced upon a girl or woman, call them out. Those that perpetuate online VAW do so from the safety of their screens. Force them to acknowledge that their behaviour is unacceptable and will not be condoned, and that it is even illegal. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one calling them out. Trust us, you will not be the only one for long.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #15: Volunteer your time and passion – virtually.
Most online anti-VAW organisations are always looking for more hands on deck. Join the cause and volunteer your time. The Pixel Project is just one of many NGOs that welcomes young volunteers. Child Helpline International needs young people to help with listening to and advising their peers or to join research projects. Or find a local non-profit or public service that has a youth programme and help your community. It could be as small an action as retweeting links, but every action will have a reaction.
Teens Preventing Online VAW #16: Start an anti-VAW campaign.
Raise awareness about the disastrous effects of VAW. Use your digital skills and the power of the internet to start an online campaign or even a platform that women and girls can use as a resource or helpline. Work with like-minded peers with the aim of ending violence against women and girls. Teens have done it before, like Polish teen Krystyna Paszko who set up a fake online shop as a lifeline for victims trapped in their homes during pandemic lockdowns, Bangladeshi teen Sadat Rahman who created a mobile app to help young people report online abuse, and Mexican teen Aleida Ruiz Sosa who is leading an anti-child marriage campaign in her city. Why not? That’s what we did.
All pictures used are Creative Commons images (from top to bottom):