Europe needs to address a major factor in the mental-health crisis facing adolescent girls in particular.
‘Social media’ have become rapidly integrated into almost all aspects of human life and social organisation, from product marketing and political communication to health, fitness and dating. Despite their many positive affordances, it is however increasingly clear that women and girls experience online disproportionate and different harms online, compared with boys and men.
These include: sexist stereotyping in online-advertising content and algorithmic targeting, negative body images induced by comparison with idealised images of women, misogyny and gender-based abuse, technology-facilitated coercive control, economic and political marginalisation, and side-effects of the dehumanisation and degradation of women in misogynistic pornography.
Our study, ‘The impact of the use of social media on women and girls’, was commissioned by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) of the European Parliament—to which we are presenting today—in response to growing concerns about the scale of digitally mediated harms experienced by women and girls. Academics, policy-makers and activists have recently devoted increasing attention to gender-based and sexual digital harm, with various large-scale surveys indicating its alarming scale and intensity.
This study uses data, reports and analyses from a wide range of sources—from academic scholarship as well as the European Union, national and other international institutions. It covers sexism and gender stereotypes in online advertising and the impact of pro-anorexia and ‘thinspiration’ content (images and text promoting thinness). It addresses gender-based and sexual abuse and harassment, coercive control and targeted hate campaigns against female politicians, journalists and other professionals. And it takes in algorithmic bias and radicalisation, misogyny in gaming and the general rise of male supremacism and pornography.
Targeted and judged
All these activities impair democracy and civic participation more widely and should therefore be of urgent concern to policy-makers, activists, legislators and educators. Among the most disturbing of our findings are the ways in which women are being targeted and judged on their appearance, subjected to image-based sexual abuse and silenced in public debate.
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The research shows that internet usage, particularly on image-based ‘social media’ platforms, is associated with increased body-image and eating anxiety, and that adolescents appear particularly vulnerable. Because girls grow up in a (real) society in which women’s bodies are routinely sexualised and used by others to assess their value, women tend to be more self-conscious of how they present themselves.
Exposure to idealised body types, ‘thinspiration’ and pro-anorexia imagery, as wel as ‘likes’ and other feedback, puts girls at a higher risk of experiencing body dissatisfaction. Importantly, however, the research also shows that strong feminist beliefs—measured as agreement with attitudes that would further gender equality—acts as a strong protective factor against this sense of constant body surveillance.
Girls and women are also significantly more likely to experience sexual and gender-based abuse on ‘social media’, including by receiving unsolicited images, being asked to send nudes or having their own images shared. This is especially acute among young people and is underpinned by gender-unequal power dynamics in youth image-sharing, the persistence of a sexual double standard and a tendency toward victim-blaming in public discourse and educational interventions.
Female politicians and journalists also experience higher incidence of online gender-based and sexual abuse and harassment than their male counterparts. This can result in self-censorship and a ‘chilling effect’, causing public figures to retreat from ‘social media’ or to restrict the topics they post about, thus inhibiting their professional and civic participation. According to many experts, gendered online violence against journalists now needs to be tackled as a multilevel, online-governance issue, rather than one of personal safety, with improved support from peers, employers and legal and political institutions.
Finally, the mainstreaming and normalisation of male-supremacist misogyny among youth poses a significant and urgent threat to women and girls on ‘social media’. Girls report that easy access to violent pornography is affecting boys’ understandings and expectations of sex.
Much of the misogyny experienced by women online originates in the ‘manosphere’, a loose network of anti-feminist and male-supremacist men’s communities, which has flourished thanks to the technological affordances of ‘social media’. The ‘manosphere’ and its asociated male and white-supremacist formations exploit these opportunities—not only to spread their gender-political beliefs but also to attack, threaten and harass women, people of colour and LGBT+ individuals. While it is difficult to determine the precise scale of this, recent research indicates that male-supremacist ideas and followings are spreading.
Digital Services Act
The Digital Services Act promises to improve the safety of women and girls on ‘social media’ platforms through its focus on systemic risks. Careful monitoring and evaluation will however be required to ensure it meets these goals. We recommend that a gender-based review is conducted of the act, a year from the first risk assessments, to ensure it is functioning as intended and that the ‘social media’ companies are complying with their obligations on access to data and algorithmic transparency.
We also recommend that those companies exercise stricter content moderation with harsher sanctions for instances of abuse, harassment and hate speech. And there should be greater regulation of ‘social media’ advertising, with expansion of the act to include gender in the restriction of targeted advertising.
Finally, improving critical digital-media literacy is crucial. EU member states should review their educational curriculua to ensure that all young people receive relatable, evidence-based education around ‘social media’ literacy, digital consent and ethics, image-based sexual abuse, online gender-based violence and gender stereotyping.