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Cyberstalking, explicit images, threatening messages among ‘online barrage of abuse and venom’ suffered by girls

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Paul O’Brien, CEO of Plan International Ireland. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Paul O’Brien, CEO of Plan International Ireland. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Paul O’Brien, CEO of Plan International Ireland. Photo: Steve Humphreys

A leading children’s rights charity is urging both the Government and social media giants to take action after it found a majority of young Irish girls and women are being subjected to a barrage of online abuse and violence.

A survey by Plan International last summer found 67pc of respondents aged between 15 and 24 experienced online abuse and harassment, including cyberstalking, being sent explicit images or messages as well as abusive and threatening messages and comments.

Those who are disabled, from an ethnic minority, from an impoverished or disadvantaged background or from the LGBT community were the most likely to be on the receiving end of the abuse, the survey, entitled ‘Girls Online: Experiences and Impacts in Ireland’, found.

Snapchat was the most common platform used by trolls to target their victims (41pc), followed by Instagram (40pc), Facebook (20pc), Twitter (14pc) and Tik Tok. In some cases, the abuse was so malicious and disturbing it forced victims to either abandon social media altogether or to radically change their online presence.

Paul O’Brien, CEO of Plan International Ireland, said the abuse is having a detrimental effect on their mental and physical health. “Ultimately, this ought to be considered a public-health issue,” he said. “Young women around the world want and need to be online, especially now during Covid-19. The online space can be a rich source of education and community building.

“However, they are being driven from social media as a result of the violence and venom directed at them. The effects of online violence are far-reaching, impacting girls’ mental health, confidence, self-esteem and relationships. The recent enactment of the Harassment, Harmful Communications & Related Offences Act (Coco’s Law) in Ireland was a welcome and progressive step. Nonetheless, now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal in confronting the issue,” he said.

He added the legislation must be accompanied by education and awareness-raising to deter perpetrators and ensure access to justice for victims

“The Government could also consider the establishment of a dedicated support line for those subjected to online abuse or harassment,” he said. “Additionally, we need to see the introduction of an Online Safety Commissioner, as set out in the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2020, and regulation of social media companies by the Government.”

Jessica Gillm from Plan’s youth advisory panel said: “Evidence is showing that Covid-19 is making the problem even worse as girls and young women are spending more time online, so too are those willing to abuse and exploit them.

“As with all forms of gender-based violence, there are certain groups of girls and young women who bear the brunt of it. For instance, girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and experiencing poverty are prime targets for sexual exploitation and abuse online as people seek to take advantage of their vulnerabilities.”

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