UK youth targeted with sexual harassment on the internet

  • Awareness
  • 06/12/2017
  • UK Safer Internet Centre

Research published today by children's charity Childnet as part of a Europe-wide project reveals that young people across the UK are being targeted by their peers with online sexual harassment, defined as unwanted sexual conduct, across a range of digital platforms.

The survey of 1,559 UK teens found that in the last year almost a third of girls aged 13-17 years (31 per cent) have received unwanted sexual messages online from their peers (compared to 11 per cent of boys), while 1 in 10 UK youth have been targeted online by their peers with sexual threats such as rape threats. Over half of UK teens have witnessed their peers circulating nude or nearly nude images of someone they know.

Launching at the Children's Global Media Summit in Manchester, the report comes amidst growing concerns of the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools and the upcoming publication of advice for schools from the Department for Education.

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 UK teens

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 half of UK respondents aged 13-17 years (51 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.
  • Almost a quarter of UK teens (23 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 8 per cent admitted they had done this in the last year.

Exploitation, coercion and threats

  • 1 in 10 of UK respondents aged 13-17 years (10 per cent) have received sexual threats online, including rape threats, from people their age in the last year, while 31 per cent have witnessed this happening.
  • 12 per cent of UK 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 (14 per cent) than boys (7 per cent).

Sexualised bullying

  • 26 per cent of UK respondents aged 13-17 years have had rumours about their sexual behaviour shared online in the last year, with almost two-thirds of respondents (65 per cent) saying that girls are judged more harshly for this than boys.
  • Almost a third of UK 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 (47 per cent) witnessed "doxing" where other young people share personal details of someone who is seen as "easy".

Unwanted sexualisation

  • 23 per cent of UK 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 (31 per cent) compared to boys (11 per cent).
  • Over a quarter of UK teens (26 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 (33 per cent) compared to boys (14 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 in the UK are more likely to turn to their friends if they experienced online sexual harassment (68 per cent), compared to their parent or carer (39 per cent), the police (18 per cent) or a teacher (15 per cent). While the majority of UK teens (81 per cent) said they would block the person on social media, just 38 per cent said they would report them.

Over half of UK teens (53 per cent) said they would just ignore it, with young people reporting a range of barriers that would prevent them from speaking up.

  • 56 per cent said they would be too embarrassed.
  • 49 per cent said they would be worried their parents/carers would stop them using the internet.
  • 48 per cent said they would be worried that they were to blame.
  • 47 per cent said they would be worried about what would happen next.

To help young people overcome these barriers, Project deSHAME, coordinated by Childnet, 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.

About Project deSHAME
Project deSHAME is 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 - see the project website at www.deshame.eu.

Read the European version of this article, presenting findings from across Denmark, Hungary and the UK.

Find more information about the project here and more about the work of the UK Safer Internet Centre here.


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Focus topic: Sexual relationships online

The issue of sexual relationships online, and especially the negative consequences when things turn sour, has been the topic of much media attention of late. Sexting - the act of sending sexually explicit messages or images by mobile phone - continues to be a concern, but new issues are arising such as ‘revenge porn' (the act of sharing sexually explicit media (images or videos) online, without the permission of the subject of the images, as a means of embarrassing or harassing them, typically by an ex-partner), while other recent cases have seen intimate images ‘stolen' from cloud-based storage services and circulated. Unfortunately anyone involved in intimate relationships online could find himself or herself a victim. There is also an increasing prevalence of abusive intimate relationships between young people, sometimes facilitated by technology.