The survey of 3,257 young people aged 13-17 years in Denmark, Hungary and the UK found that in the last year almost a third of girls (30 per cent) have received unwanted sexual messages online from their peers (compared to 13 per cent of boys), while almost 1 in 10 young people have been targeted online by their peers with sexual threats such as rape threats. Over 2 in 5 have witnessed their peers circulating nude or nearly nude images of someone they know.
This research has been conducted as part of Project deSHAME, a collaboration between Childnet (UK), Kek Vonal (Hungary), Save the Children (Denmark) and UCLan (UK), co-financed by the EU. It aims to increase reporting of online sexual harassment among minors and improve multi-sector cooperation in preventing and responding to this behaviour.
Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet, and coordinator of Project deSHAME said:
"Digital technology plays a central role in young people's lives but it has opened the door for a range of new forms of sexual harassment, making societal discussions about these issues more pertinent than ever. It is evidently something that as a society we can no longer ignore. Throughout the development of this report we have listened to the stories of young people who are navigating the complexities of relationships in a digital age and in some cases are facing the worst forms of peer-to-peer victimisation and online sexual harassment. We believe that all young people have a right to be safe and free to express themselves in digital spaces. This report underlines how essential it is that we all work together to ensure that online sexual harassment is not an inevitable part of growing up."
Key findings with teens in Denmark, Hungary and the UK
For most young people, the internet plays an essential role in their friendships and relationships, providing positive opportunities for communication, connection and self-expression. However, for many young people, online sexual harassment is embedded in their digital lives and to some extent expected. It emerges as part of the wider dynamic of their peer group and intimate relationships, and exists within a societal context where a pervasive culture of sexualisation, misogyny and homophobia is often left unchallenged.
In the report, online sexual harassment has been categorised in four main types. These different behaviours are often experienced simultaneously and can overlap with offline experiences of sexual harassment.
Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos
- Over 2 in 5 respondents aged 13-17 years (41 per cent) said they have witnessed people their age circulating nude or nearly nude images of someone they know, also referred to as "revenge porn", while 6 per cent have been the target of this behaviour.
- A quarter of teens (25 per cent) have witnessed young people secretly taking sexual images of someone and sharing them online, also referred to as "creep shots" or "upskirting", while 10 per cent admitted they had done this in the last year.
- One 14-year-old girl in the UK said: "A boy who told me he really liked me and that if I sent him it we could be such amazing couple… I fell for it and the next day my pictures were all around school even though he sent me a picture first."
Exploitation, coercion and threats
- Almost 1 in 10 respondents aged 13-17 years (9 per cent) have received sexual threats online, including rape threats, from people their age in the last year, while 29 per cent have witnessed this happening.
- 10 per cent of teens said their boyfriend or girlfriend had pressured them to share nude images in the last year, with girls being more likely to report this than boys.
- As one 13-year-old girl in the UK said: "I was being pressurised into sending sexual photos and videos of myself and was threatened if I didn't. They would go on and on at me when I said no, but would carry on with the threats."
- 25 per cent of respondents aged 13-17 years have had rumours about their sexual behaviour shared online in the last year, with over two-thirds of respondents (68 per cent) saying that girls are judged more harshly for this than boys.
- Almost a third of teens (31 per cent) had seen people their age creating fake profiles of someone to share sexual images, comments or messages in the last year, while almost half (48 per cent) witnessed "doxing" where other young people share personal details of someone who is seen as "easy".
- As one 14-year-old boy in Hungary said: "I had an acquaintance, and we fell out, so he wrote ugly comments to my photos and things like that, and then he made a new profile with my profile picture, he added all my friends on Facebook and he posted that ‘I am gay'".
- 24 per cent of respondents aged 13-17 years have received unwanted sexual messages and images in the last year, with girls being significantly more likely to experience this (30 per cent) compared to boys (13 per cent).
- Almost a quarter of teens (24 per cent) reported that they had received sexual comments on a photo they posted of themselves in the last year, with girls being significantly more likely to experience this (26 per cent) compared to boys (18 per cent).
Empowering young people to speak up about online sexual harassment
The research revealed that young people face many barriers that can prevent them from speaking up about online sexual harassment.
Young people are more likely to turn to their friends if they experienced online sexual harassment (67 per cent), compared to their parent or carer (48 per cent), the police (27 per cent) or a teacher (14 per cent). While the majority of teens (82 per cent) said they would block the person on social media, just 39 per cent said they would report them.
Almost 2 in 5 teens (39 per cent) said they would just ignore it, with young people reporting a range of barriers that would prevent them from speaking up:
- 52 per cent said they would be too embarrassed.
- 42 per cent said they would be worried about what would happen next.
- 42 per cent said they would be worried about being targeted by those involved.
- 39 per cent said they would be worried that they were to blame
To help young people overcome these barriers, Project deSHAME will now begin to develop educational resources to equip schools to effectively prevent and respond to online sexual harassment among young people and empower them to speak up.
Visit www.deshame.eu to read the full report and join a new network established to share learning about this issue.
Read the UK-specific version of this article.