Online abuse disproportionately impacts girls and women — what parents need to know

 

I was recently invited to speak to parents whose daughters attend Queenwood School for Girls, about managing their children’s online safety. Here’s an abridged version of the speech I gave about the online issues their children may experience, particularly those they may be more susceptible to, just because they are female. While many of these issues are rooted in a fundamental lack of respect and potentially, underlying currents of misogyny, they can be minimised by engaged and informed parents early on.  Understanding how the range of online abuses affect girls differently, and the ways to help manage them, are key to helping young women thrive in a connected world.

We know that parents worry about their children online - just as we worry about them in everyday life. In fact, our recently released national survey of over 3,500 Australian parents, “Parenting in the Digital Age,” shows that 94% believe that online safety is a top parenting concern.

It’s not surprising that we feel all this way. Even as the eSafety Commissioner, and with 25 years of experience in the high-tech industry, I can still feel confounded by my own kids’ technological mastery. We are parenting in a new online era, without a manual, and without having grown up with the same access to information available at our fingertips.

We are mindful that you all have your own unique parenting styles and coping strategies – from open, to restrictive, to surgical helicoptering. But we are also profoundly aware that there is a lot of advice from so-called ‘experts’ out there, some of it rooted in scaremongering and based on little evidence, which only serves to panic and confuse parents. That is not our aim here.  We seek to empower parents to embrace the benefits and understand the risks, with tools and tips to mitigate them.

The simple truth is, the best way to help guide our children along this journey is to be actively engaged in their online lives, as well as giving them the space to problem-solve on their own, particularly as they enter the teenage realm. While we want to give them the appropriate tools to safeguard them online, it is also important to allow our children to experience some level of adversity online. It is only then, that they will hone their critical reasoning skills and develop the digital resilience they will need to cope with the eventual online onslaught. 

For those of you who haven’t heard of eSafety, we were established in 2015, to help Australians have safer experiences online.

We are the only government office in the world dedicated to coordinating online safety efforts nationally, and to helping keep its citizens safer online.

We provide a safety net for young people experiencing serious cyberbullying, while also operating a reporting service for Australians who are victims of image-based abuse.  My CyberReport team conducted over 13,000 investigations into child sexual abuse content last year alone and in the wake of the tragic live-streamed Christchurch massacre. We now tackle abhorrent violent content too.  All of which makes for conversation-stopping BBQ banter.

Initially, my role was circumscribed to cover the online safety of just children.  But over time, the Government recognised that there were a range of other vulnerable groups online that needed attention, so we began to address the unique safety issues that impact senior citizens, women, Indigenous Australians and those of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Our latest parenting research across Australia shows that 81% are giving their kids devices by the age of 4 – and 42% by the age of 2.

Back in our day, our mums used to plop us in front of the TV while they fixed dinner.  But this was a passive entertainment mechanism usually in a central area so that we could be kept in plain sight.  By contrast, smartphones and tablets are interactive devices that allow all forms of content and people on the Internet into our lounge rooms.

The good news is that 3 out of 4 parents are starting to see this and are taking some form of action to try and keep their children safe online. However, there was a significant knowledge gap as time-poor parents struggle to keep up the ever-changing online trends of young people. To that end, less than half of parents felt confident dealing with cyberbullying, or managing online threats, like contact with strangers – which we know 1 in 4 Australian teens have experienced.

And a whopping 95% of parents told us they need additional online safety information to help them manage the online risks children are exposed to. And this is great news because our website at www.esafety.gov.au has some of the most comprehensive online safety resources on the web.

As parents of young women, it’s also important to be aware of their susceptibility to certain online issues. I have two girls myself and I am particularly attuned to conversations I need to have with them to prepare them for the online world. These are slightly different to the issues and concerns I have for my son venturing online.

Our 2018 survey of 3,000 young people revealed that girls almost always had more negative experiences online than boys. This includes being the target of threats and abuse, damage to their reputation, social exclusion and unwanted contact.

They are also more pressured to send nude selfies – as our 2017 sexting research shows, girls were three times more likely to be asked for a nude or semi-nude image, and they were significantly more likely to receive a nude they did not ask for.  Women are also more likely to become victims of image-based abuse or ‘revenge porn’ as it’s more colloquially known – with 1 in 5 women aged 18 to 45 having had their intimate image shared online without their consent. 

We also know from other research that women are less likely to identify their gender while online gaming, to limit the amount “masculine toxicity” which often includes bullying, or “griefing” as it is called in gaming parlance. 

Sadly, we are seeing the behavioural issues and underlying societal issues of misogyny and violence being surfaced on social media which results in targeted harassment. And, not surprisingly, the reports we receive through our cyberbullying complaints scheme and image-based abuse portal correlate with these findings. Since July 2015 we’ve received more than 1,200 cyberbullying complaints involving young, and sometimes very vulnerable, Australians under the age of 18.

The incidences we see range from fake profiles set up to taunt and damage the reputations of young people, to serious name calling and threats, including being told to GKY – or, ‘go kill yourself’.

Girls are represented more so than boys in these reports. On average they are around 14 years of age, and the cyberbullying behaviour is often an extension of a social conflict happening on school grounds.

We also know that girls employ relational bullying tactics like excluding other girls, spreading rumours, and backstabbing. These subtle but extremely hurtful bullying methods are more insidious as they highly visible to one’s peers, whilst remaining largely hidden to adults, whether parents or school officials.

Not only is it critical they we encourage our children to come to us when things go wrong online, it is also important that we as parents encourage our children to think before they click ‘send’ on a hurtful message or post. We need to remind them that while they may not see the emotional impact that digital stones can have, there are damaging impacts on the recipient and it is difficult to take back once it is posted for all to see.

We also want our daughters to call out bad behaviour, or alternatively give support to those who are being targeted, if they are seeing this play out in a group chat or on social media. We call this being an “upstander” rather than a “bystander” and our YeS Project for schools helps reinforce these supportive behaviours.

We are seeing similar trends through our image-based abuse reporting tool; Australians of any age can report when an intimate or sexual photo of them is shared without their consent online. We have received over 980 image-based abuse reports, with around 60% concerning female victims. A third of these reports involve victims who were under the age of 18 at the time the intimate image or video was taken. Again, the majority of these victims are female.

We are also seeing more reports of sextortion and catfishing from 12 and 13 year olds.  Often they meet a “boy” – or Justin Bieber or a Bollywood star in the case of catfishing – on a social media, gaming or teen dating site. The online grooming or building of trust can take place over an extended period of time. The person is eventually asked to send an intimate image or engage in a “sexy Skype” – and the moment that happens, they are immediately extorted for money, with the threat of sharing with friends and family over social media if the victim does not comply.

This is the brave new online world we are all inhabiting.

We know that the most effective interventions begin with parents engaging early, often and consistently in their children’s online lives.  It took me a while to learn this – and I’m still learning every day.

Your experience, wisdom and life skills make you the perfect candidates for facilitating this education in this digital era we all inhabit.

We want to equip you with the tools you need to help your teens navigate this online world but also to provide you with assistance when you have done all you can.

Our tips and advice at www.esafety.gov.au/parents will help you do just that.

This is an abridged version of Julie Inman Grant’s speech at Queenwood School for Girls, 23 May 2019.


Sign up for eSafety News

Stay up to date with online
issues, new resources, events, and the latest research.