Young peoples’ rates of reporting online sexual harassment and abuse ‘shockingly low’

Sam Wood
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Results from the report are described as 'shocking'.

Young people aged 12 to 18 are unlikely to report receiving, or being asked to share, non-consensual sexual images to their school, parents or social media platforms according to a new report.

The findings from the UCL Institute of Education, the University of Kent, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the School of Sexuality Education, show that teenage girls are overwhelmingly affected by the impact of unwanted image-sharing and that the practice has become ‘dangerously normalised’ for many young people.

The study involved 480 young people from across the UK. From the survey findings, 51% who had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent reported doing nothing. When asked why they didn’t report the incident, around a third of people said ‘I don’t think reporting works’.

Among young people who said they had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent, 25% told a friend, 17% reported issues to social media platforms, 5% to parents and just 2% to their school.

Of the 88 girls taking part, 75% said they had received an image of male genitals, with the majority ‘not asked for’ or ‘unwanted’. Participants described instances where the senders were adult men who had created false identities, but also discussed episodes of online harassment and abuse from boys in their age range and known peer groups. From the survey findings, participants reported that nearly half of incidents of image-based sexual harassment were from unknown adult men, based on profiles.

Lead author of the report, Professor Jessica Ringrose (UCL Institute of Education) said: ‘Young people in the UK are facing a crisis of online sexual violence. Despite these young people, in particular girls, saying they felt ‘disgusted’, embarrassed and confused’ about the sending and receiving of non-consensual images, they rarely want to talk about their online experiences for fear of victim-blaming and worry that reporting will make matters worse.

‘We hope this report allows all of us to better identify when and how image-sharing becomes digital sexual harassment and abuse and spread the message that, although the non-consensual sending and sharing of sexual images may be common and feel ‘normal’, it is extremely harmful.’

Several key recommendations are made by the authors for policy makers, school leaders, teachers, parents, carers and tech companies. For tech companies, the authors call on online platforms to maintain a record of images, videos and messages in order to identify perpetrators and facilitate the easier reporting of incidents.

The report also suggests that the Government’s statutory Relationships, Sex and Education guidance should be revised to remove any victim-blaming rhetoric, such as teaching students they should ‘resist pressure to have sex’. They believe this can cause schools to incorrectly teach children that victims of coercion should be responsible for changing their own behaviours, whereas it is the behaviours of perpetrators that must change.

Report co-author Dr Kaitlyn Regehr, Senior Lecturer in Media and Digital Culture in Kent’s School of Arts said: ‘This is a societal issue and we need to help create environments where young people feel able to talk and safe enough to share their experiences.

‘One of the key aims of our report is to help parents understand the digital landscape so – rather than being punitive – they can support their children in navigating this difficult terrain.’

The full findings of the report can be found here.