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“This is the internet, from the girls who have to put up with it”

The Girlguiding Advocate Panel is made up of 18 young women aged 14 to 25 who help direct the organisation’s research, advocacy and campaigning. Yesterday they appeared at Reclaim the Internet

The internet is an incredible place for activism because social media sites like Facebook and Twitter allow you to connect with so many people so quickly – this means with a tap of the thumbs you’re able to begin changing opinions and attitudes of people across the world. Why should such positive change come to a halt because people feel threatened by online abuse?

As activists ourselves, we see the effect of trolls and abusive comments and we don’t think that these people should be allowed to hinder girls and young women from speaking out.

All too often we are told to ignore the trolls, to block them. But that’s not enough. When there is a constant stream of people inundating your tweets or your blog posts with malicious comments, swearing at you, trying to make you feel unqualified or invalidate your opinions or experiences, clicking the report button doesn’t feel like enough because the damage has already been done.

That girl already feels like her opinions don’t matter, that young woman already fears campaigning online again because she doesn’t want another rape threat.

We can no longer stand by and watch the internet become a place where girls and young women are abused and silenced.

Girlguiding’s 2013 Girls’ Attitudes Survey found that 54 per cent of girls have experienced negative abuse online, but in 2014 that figure rose by a further 10 per cent and it continues to rise.

The impact this is having on girls is unacceptable. The result of this abuse is that we are losing girls’ voices from online life. The internet has become yet another place where girls and young women feel uncomfortable and at times unsafe. It is also one of the only places where this kind of malicious abuse and blatant sexism is just so readily accepted and goes unchallenged.

Girlguiding’s research shows that 50 per cent of girls are aware of the sexist abuse high-profile women receive online.

Many said that seeing this abuse negatively affects the way they act on social media and when speaking out. They said it made them feel uncomfortable and less likely to voice their opinions on issues that matter to them.

Girls said that they were likely to face abuse just because they are girls speaking out – not because of what they are posting.

Clearly many girls and young women are being discouraged from posting on social media and as a result many vital voices are being silenced online

Online abuse also affects girls’ mental wellbeing. Today, when everyone now has a smartphone in their pocket, the abuser has a constant link to their victim.

It’s not enough to tell us to turn off our phone or delete our social media accounts. When we do that we are silencing ourselves and when we do that the bully wins.

We have a right to that online space just as we have the right to walk down the street.

Social media has given people a platform to hide behind and people use it to bully and harass young people, when really it should be a safer place for voicing opinions and staying in touch with friends.

Harassment occurs both on the internet and in real life, so it’s important to deal with this issue from a young age.

The introduction of compulsory PSHE would help to ensure that today’s young people are informed about healthy relationships and gender equality.

We believe that social media and the internet can and should provide opportunities for empowerment, free speech and public debate.

We believe that all organisations, charities, the government and schools must work together to tackle online threats and abusive behaviour, particularly that which silences underrepresented groups.

Ed: Deciding if or how to act on this issue might be as imperative for technology leaders as it is for civil society. Many in business are parents, but many are simply building interesting digital companies or desperately wanting to hire more ‘talent’.  These tasks are even harder if 50 per cent of people feel like the web isn’t really a place for them.