Online safety during COVID – supporting young people feel free to be online

Susanne Legena - CEO of Plan International Australia – August 19, 2021

With large cities in Australia stuck in stopping and starting lockdowns owing to COVID, most of us have been spending more of our lives online. There is no doubt that social media platforms have been a great comfort to many and connected us with friends, family and community.

The downside is that negative comments, trolling and online abuse are also on the rise. As well as opportunities to learn from and share with each other, social media also presents us with content that may negatively affect our wellbeing and people who are intent on trolling or harassing us. Young people – particularly girls – are often the target of online violence, which can silence their voices and cause real and lasting harm.

That’s why Plan International Australia’s young activists have come together to create a new guide to help young girls in particular take greater control over their online experiences. Alongside their tips and personal experiences, they’ve highlighted tools in Instagram and Facebook that can help make your social media world what you want it to be.

COVID has created the ‘perfect storm’ for online trolling

Sadly, COVID-19 has created the perfect conditions for misogynist trollers to proliferate and prosper. In October 2020, Plan International released a wide ranging report called Free to Be Online? which found that two-thirds of the 14000 girls surveyed in 22 countries have experienced online violence – in many cases on multiple occasions across various platforms.

The report further found that one in five girls (19%) have left or significantly reduced use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in ten (12%) have changed the way they express themselves.

In Australia, two-thirds (65%) of girls and young women aged 15-25 have been exposed to a spectrum of online violence (higher than the global figure of 58%), and half of those have suffered mental and emotional distress as a result.

One in five Australian girls and young women we surveyed have feared for their physical safety due to online threats.

Our youth activists’ guide to Facebook and Instagram

Through our Free to Be Online research, girls and young women around the world told us how they are physically threatened, racially abused, sexually harassed and body shamed online. How it gets worse when they raise their voices and share their opinions.

The young people we work with also pointed to the gap in resources and advice. Guidance often addresses children, or women, without acknowledging adolescent girls at the intersection of these identities. Our youth activists also told us they wanted to see guidance that was relevant, realistic and empowering. They wanted advice from peers with shared experiences to help them take control of their online lives.

Our youth activists have created this guide to help other young people take control of their experiences online. Through these practical tips, and personal experiences they show how the safety tools on Facebook and Instagram can work for young people, to create a safer, richer experience online.

We thank Facebook for listening to the feedback and the opportunity to collaborate together with the Youth Activist team to create this youth-led campaign. Visit the campaign page here.

Susanne Legena is CEO of Plan International Australia, the charity for girls’ equality

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