Tackling online sexual harassment with project deShame at the Safer Internet Forum 2019

On Thursday, 21 November 2019, the Safer Internet Forum (SIF) took place in Brussels, Belgium. With a theme of "From online violence to digital respect", it also celebrated 20 years of safer/better internet funding by the European Commission. Below, read the summary of a deep dive session on online sexual harassment and project deShame, led by Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, Policy and Communications Manager at Childnet.

Project deSHAME is a European Commission funded project aiming to tackle peer-based online sexual harassment. It is a collaboration between Childnet, Save the Children (Denmark), Kek Vonal (Hungary) and UCLan (UK). In close consultation with young people, professionals, industry and policymakers, it aims to increase reporting of online sexual harassment among young people, and improve multi-sector cooperation in preventing and responding to this behaviour.

In developing the project, the partners started from focus groups in the UK with young people and based their action on the needs observed. A large-scale research was carried out across the three partner countries with young people, teachers and professionals. The deShame project also consists of an expert and a youth advisory boards to help them in the process.

Project deShame visual identity

Maithreyi Rajeshkumar first introduced how online sexual harassment is understood in the context of the project deShame. It is difficult to define and it took the project about a year to find a viable definition. As such, it is "unwanted sexual conduct on any online platform" – Maithreyi Rajeshkumar assured that there are challenges with this definition. Regarding the scope, the project focuses on online sexual harassment that occurs between young people, consisting of images, videos, posts, messages on public and private platforms; overlapping with offline behaviours; and representing a form of gendered sexual violence. It can make a person feel threatened, exploited, coerced, humiliated, upset, sexualised or discriminated against.

Then, Maithreyi Rajeshkumar organised a group discussion based on the question "What behaviours do we think are happening among young people in regards to online sexual harassment?" The conclusion was that it covers quite a wide range of situations, and this was a clear challenge for the project as well.

Slide from the project deShame presentation at the Safer Internet Forum 2019

Maithreyi described four categories of online sexual harassment:

  • Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos, with 51 per cent of young people reporting having seen people sharing (nearly-) nude images of someone they know, and 23 per cent admitting they have seen people secretly taking sexual images of someone and sharing them online.
  • Exploitation, coercion and threats, with 10 per cent saying they have been sent sexual threats online, and 7 per cent saying that someone used sexual images of them to threaten or blackmail them.
  • Sexualised bullying, with 66 per cent saying they have seen people sharing things about someone else's sexual behaviour, and 80 per cent saying they have seen people using terms like "sket" or "slut" to describe girls online in a mean way.
  • Unwanted sexualisation, with 23 per cent saying they have received unwanted sexual images, and 47 per cent saying they have seen someone editing photos of someone to make them sexual.

Who is online sexual harassment happening to? Maithreyi Rajeshkumar said that there are more reported cases about girls, but it also seems that boys report it less. One should not only consider the gender, but other aspects as well (for example, non-binary people). In reality, it can happen to everybody and everyone can also experience it differently. The consequences can also vary quite a lot from case to case. She therefore presented the slide below with five key characteristics which the deShame research project explored.

Slide from the project deShame presentation at the Safer Internet Forum 2019

The key factors of online sexual harassment are developmental, relationship, peer group, and societal. There was a group discussion about the reasons why young people might engage in online sexual harassment. Participants mentioned peer pressure, power and lack of self-esteem, and imbalance of power in general. Maithreyi Rajeshkumar presented the top five perceived motivations why others might engage in online sexual harassment, according to the study: "as a joke" (54 per cent), "to hurt someone" (52 per cent), "to retaliate because someone else started it first" (50 per cent), "to get their own back on an ex" (47 per cent), and "to get respect from friends" (45 per cent).

What stops young people from reporting online sexual harassment? What are the barriers? How do they respond to it? Young people respond to it by "blocking the people involved" (82 per cent), "speaking to friends" (67 per cent), "telling the people involved to stop" (65 per cent), or "speaking to parents or carers" (48 per cent). But there are many barriers to seeking help, with the top five being "too embarrassed" (52 per cent), "worried about what would happen next" (42 per cent), "worried about being targeted by those involved" (42 per cent), "worried that they are to blame" (39 per cent), and "would rather sort it out themselves" (39 per cent).

The top five barriers to reporting to teachers are "worried school would overreact" (50 per cent), "worried it would make it worse" (43 per cent), "would not know which teacher to speak to" (32 per cent), "don't think I would be taken seriously" (23 per cent), and "teachers are too busy to speak to" (20 per cent).

The top five barriers to reporting to the police are "I wouldn't want them to involve my family" (53 per cent), "I wouldn't want to get into trouble" (46 per cent), "I would think it wasn't serious enough" (39 per cent), "I think it would be too difficult" (37 per cent), and "I wouldn't know how to" (36 per cent).

And finally, the top five barriers to reporting to social media are "I don't think it would help" (43 per cent), "I don't think they would do anything" (40 per cent), "I would be worried that the people involved will get notified" (33 per cent), "it's too much effort" (18 per cent), and "I don't know how to" (18 per cent).

Victim blaming also appeared to be very strong among young people in the study. 55 per cent of respondents said they felt that if someone's nude or nearly nude image is shared online, they are partly to blame. 68 per cent said that they felt girls are judged more harshly for sexual rumours about them than boys.

Slide from the project deShame presentation at the Safer Internet Forum 2019

Maithreyi Rajeshkumar then introduced the Step Up, Speak Up! Campaign Toolkit. It is easy to use, practical, inclusive, and based on real-life situations. She then carried out a demonstration of a lesson plan, distributing different scenarios across the room, and showing participants a chart with a continuum between "Fun and flirting" to "Banter and harassment". There were discussions on each scenario, trying to position each of them on the continuum.

Maithreyi Rajeshkumar then shared the lessons learnt throughout the project:

  • Ensuring young people are consulted every step of the way.
  • Interactive and practical format of resources.
  • Increase understanding of how and where to report.
  • National variations reflect differences in education systems, different levels of prior attention to issue.
  • Importance of safe space for discussing complexities of issue (such as gender dynamics, victim blame, consent).
  • Long-term and whole-school approach needed.

When it comes to the next steps, the project partners are now exploring the prevalence of online sexual harassment happening among children aged 9-12, engaging parents and carers more, and developing a toolkit for EU member states.

For more information about the Safer Internet Forum 2019 "From online violence to digital respect", you can read the full report on betterinternetforkids.eu and visit betterinternetforkids.eu/sif2019.


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