It’s time to take girls’ digital safety and literacy seriously

We can’t wait until all girls have internet access to think about making online spaces safe. Image: Unsplash/Bruce Mars

Madeleine Askham
Policy & Advocacy Lead, Plan International
Isobel Fergus
Research Manager, Plan International
Nikita Shrubsole
Digital Policy & Advocacy Officer, Plan International
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  • Girls and young women spend huge amounts of time online.
  • Access to the internet and digital skills are crucial in today’s increasingly digital world.
  • We can’t wait until all girls have internet access to think about making online spaces safe. Girls – and all children – need to be equipped for a digital future.
  • #InternationalDayoftheGirl, marked every year on 11 October, is a moment to celebrate girls in all their diversity and highlight where progress still needs to be made for girls’ rights.

Girls and young women are spending a huge amount of time online, driven by a quest for connection and information, and the desire to extend their knowledge beyond what they learn from their families, schools and communities. The opportunities the internet presents are boundless.

It provides an outlet for individuals to express their opinions and engage in debate around the issues that matter to them. For girls and young women, especially those from minority groups, this is invaluable.

“On the issue of sexuality, I didn’t really have a chance to get to talk about it, or what happens when you’re growing up, because in my country adults don’t really talk about those issues. So, the only place I will learn about everything is through the internet.”

Lisa, 22, Malawi

Unfortunately, digital spaces also open up a whole world of abuse, false information, and misogyny. In 2020, Plan International brought worldwide attention to the online abuse that is disempowering girls every day, and called on social media companies to take urgent action to address this issue on their platforms.

We found that girls are being silenced online by toxic levels of harassment, with 58% of girls surveyed having experienced it. The harassment was personal and targeted, due to their gender and other intersecting characteristics such as race, sexuality, and disability. Girls are physically threatened, sexually harassed, body-shamed and racially abused.

The abuse is often violent and nearly always frightening and it gets worse when they raise their voices, share their opinions or belong to minority groups including those that are disabled, Black or identify as LGBTIQ+.

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False information

On this year’s International Day of the Girl, through Plan International’s latest ‘State of the World’s Girls’ report, we’re shining a light on how the spread of false information is harming girls by preventing them from engaging in content they want to see, and ultimately, putting further limits on their potential to thrive and become leaders.

We spoke to over 26,000 girls and young women across 26 countries about their exposure to false information online. Nine out of 10 (87%) told us it has negatively impacted their lives, with one in four (26%) feeling less confident to share their views, and one in five (18%) have stopped engaging in politics or current affairs as a result.

One in three (35%) girls and young women report that false information online is affecting their mental health, leaving them feeling stressed, worried, and anxious. One in five (20%) are left feeling physically unsafe.

Fear, threats, mistruths, and discrimination online cannot be accepted as a rite of passage for girls and young people growing up in a digital world. If we don’t act now, the digital environment will remain a hostile place and will continue to undermine girls’ leadership and agency.

Image: Plan International

Taking action

In addition to promoting internet access for girls, we must also make sure their online spaces are safe and enabling. In today’s world, girls –and all children –need to be equipped for a digital future.

Everyone has a role to play in this and there are already some welcome developments. For example, after the Generation Equality Forum that was held at the end of June 2021, digital access and literacy became priority actions. The forum also made firm commitments to tackle gender-based violence on social media platforms. These are promising signs that progress will be made over the next five years.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Another welcome development was the launch of the World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety. The coalition focuses on driving public-private cooperation to tackle harmful content and conduct online. It does this by exchanging best practices for new online safety regulation, taking coordinated action to reduce the risk of online harms, and enhancing digital media literacy with governments such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, and companies such as Microsoft, TwoHat, ActiveFence, and Spectrum Labs.

Whilst these are all positive steps forward, we must ensure promises turn into action. Social media companies need to step up their efforts to find solutions. And while protecting freedom of opinion and expression, governments need to make sure online platforms are properly regulated. Girls need to have a say in how decisions and policies are being made to ensure that solutions are based on their digital realities.

Fighting disinformation

Plan International’s research found that seven out of 10 girls and young women (67%) have never been taught how to spot misinformation or disinformation at school. Most of the girls surveyed said that there are no online sources that they trust to provide reliable information.

Girls around the world are urgently asking governments to educate children in digital literacy: They need to be able to sift the truth from the lies if they are to stay safe. And all young people need to be able to question information and check facts before they believe and share it. This is a vital step for girls to feel #FreeToBeOnline.

“Currently, we are in a world where everything is being done on the internet. We are doing everything digitally. So, I think it should be taught in schools from nurseries to primary schools, secondary schools, and universities. So that when we grow up, we have a better view on how to use our digital platforms.”

Mia, 20, Kenya

Right now, you can help raise girls’ voices. Sign their petition calling on governments to educate children in digital literacy.

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