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Online Safety for Women and Girls: A Guide to Combating Online Harassment

Last updated: September 27, 2021

Online harassment is a growing problem. Unfortunately, this problem is even worse for women and girls. According to a Pew Research report, 59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. Another report states women are twice as likely as men to report online harassment. 

We must treat online harassment as a serious issue. Online harassment towards women and girls is a common issue with long-lasting effects. The psychological harm from harassment can harm women’s mental wellness. It can also impact their personal and professional lives. 

Women must have resources and support to turn to when harassment occurs. The general public must also be educated about what makes up harassment and understands the harm it causes. 

An awareness of different types of harassment is helpful to identify and prevent it. Learning how to avoid and report it can reduce its damaging effects. Online platforms can expose women and girls to many forms of harassment. We should be aware of the many ways online harassment can take place, how to avoid it, and how to deal with it when it occurs. 

Identifying Harassment

Uncertain if you or a loved one are experiencing online harassment? There are certain signs of harassment to be on the lookout for. You may be experiencing harassment if any of the following are true:

  • Someone is saying or doing something that makes you uncomfortable.
  • Someone repeatedly does something that makes you feel uncomfortable despite you asking them to stop.
  • Someone is threatening you. Direct or implied threats should be treated seriously.
  • Someone is blackmailing you. If someone is threatening to reveal info about you in return for money, images, or favors, they are committing blackmail.
  • Someone is directly or indirectly using a position of power to control or silence you. 
  • A person in a position of power is refusing to acknowledge your achievements or is unreasonable in their use of punishments.
  • You are being told not to tell anyone else about something that is going on.
  • Someone is making things up about you. 
  • Someone has made a fake online profile for you. If you find an account that is impersonating you, you should report it. 
  • Someone is trying to sabotage your educational or professional life. 
  • You dread interacting with a particular person or group of people. 

Harassment on Social Media

Young people spend a lot of time online nowadays. As of 2020, users worldwide engaged with social media for an average of 145 minutes per day. Some surveys show that teenagers in the U.S. may be online for up to even nine hours per day. This doesn’t include time used for homework.

As one of our main ways of interacting with others, social media also, unfortunately, offers an easy channel for online harassment. Information campaigns and online movements such as #MeToo have brought a lot of attention to harassment in recent years. Still, you should remain vigilant about the harassment directed towards yourself or others. 

Popular Platforms

Different social media platforms have different ways to report harassment. Some popular social media platforms and their privacy/reporting options include:

  • Twitter: Twitter allows you to decide whether your tweets are public or protected. Protected tweets are only visible to your followers. You can report individual tweets for abusive content. You can also visit Twitter’s help center to report ongoing harassment. 
  • Instagram: Instagram offers options for making your account or individual posts private. If you witness or experience harassment, you can report individual posts or an account for abusive behavior. 
  • Facebook: Facebook offers many privacy options for limiting the visibility of your account or posts. If you experience harassment, you can report individual posts or an account for abusive behavior. 
  • Snapchat: You can adjust your privacy settings for a variety of personal information and content on your account. You can report accounts for harassment. 
  • Reddit: Reddit offers very few privacy settings. If you are being harassed, you can report the post, alert the moderators of the subreddit, or contact an administrator. 
  • TikTok: You can adjust your privacy settings for your account, individual posts, and direct messages. You can report accounts, as well as individual pieces of content for harassment. 

Best Practices for Navigating Social Media Safely

There are many privacy and reporting options available on social media platforms today. It can be overwhelming to learn and navigate safety options for each one. Regardless of what platform you are using, it’s helpful to follow some general best practices for online safety:

  • Learn about and adjust your privacy settings. These settings will depend on the platform you’re using, so take some time to familiarize yourself with them.
  • Be wary about posting compromising or personal information. Refuse to share personal information with other individuals online. Your email address, financial information, and even your full name should not be shared online.
  • Ensure that access to your information is well-protected. Use measures such as strong passwords and encryption.
  • Confirm the identities of people you regularly interact with. A simple Google search could turn up some useful information, but you can also check 
  • Watch out for suspicious behavior.
  • Know what online harassment looks like.
  • Block individuals that are harassing you.
  • Be clear and firm about what you consider to be acceptable behavior.
  • Do not allow others to intimidate you out of taking action.
  • Document and report abusive behavior immediately. 

Harassment on Online Dating Platforms

Online dating can be unsafe. Women often face harassment on online dating platforms. A survey from the Pew Research Center reported the following about gender and harassment on dating platforms:

Six in ten women under the age of 35 who have used online dating sites or apps say someone continued to contact them after they said they were not interested, compared with 27% of men in this age range. Younger female users are also about twice as likely as their male counterparts to say someone on a dating site or app has called them an offensive name (44% vs. 23%) or threatened to physically harm them (19% vs. 9%).

Dating platforms are social spaces for adults. It is unsafe for minors to use them. Even for adults, it can be difficult to avoid harassment on dating platforms as you reach out and mingle with new people. But there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe. 

Popular Platforms

There are many different platforms for online dating. Each has different ways to report harassment. Some of the most popular dating platforms and their reporting options include:

  • Tinder: Tinder users can report harassment from other users by visiting the offending user’s profile. You can also submit a complaint online through Tinder’s help center. 
  • Bumble: Bumble users can report harassment from other users by visiting the offending user’s profile. You can also find a report option through the conversations menu. 
  • Happn: Happn users can report harassment from other users by visiting the offending user’s profile. 
  • Plenty of Fish: Plenty of Fish users can report harassment from other users by visiting the offending user’s profile. You may also email customer support. 
  • OkCupid: OkCupid users can report harassment through the offending user’s profile or a messaging window. You can also email their customer support. 
  • EHarmony: EHarmony users can report harassment from other users by visiting the offending user’s profile. You may also email customer support. 

Best Practices for Navigating Dating Platforms Safely

Safety should be the highest priority when participating in online dating. Best practices for safely navigating dating platforms include:

  • Report abusive behavior using the above methods.
  • Refuse to give out personal information. If someone persists in getting this info, block any communication with them.
  • Use pictures unique to your dating profile to avoid reverse image searches. This can prevent unidentified users from learning more about you.
  • Block users who are harassing you. You do not need to respond to abusive messages.
  • Confirm the identities of individuals you interact with. Note that some dating platforms have identity verification features.
  • If you decide to meet in the real world, drive separately to the date spot.
  • Only meet new people in public spaces. Coffee shops or restaurants are good places to meet new people.
  • Do not click on suspicious links.
  • Do not share compromising materials. This includes any personally identifiable information or images.
  • Identify toxic or suspicious behavior. If the behavior doesn’t improve after confronting them about it, do not pursue a relationship with them.
  • Firmly establish your boundaries. You have the right to set your personal boundaries. If your date does not respect them, leave them.
  • Let friends and family know about where you are. You may even want to set up a “bailout plan” in case you don’t feel good about the date. This will help you quickly exit an uncomfortable situation. 

Harassment in Online Gaming

Harassment is a common problem in the gaming world. A study published by the Anti-Defamation League showed 65% of video game players surveyed experienced “severe harassment” at some point during online gameplay. Meanwhile, 38% of female gamers surveyed said that they had experienced harassment based on their gender. 

There is a mountain of evidence about toxicity and harassment in online gaming directed toward women. Awareness of these issues is becoming more common. As awareness spreads, women can navigate online gaming more safely with support systems, options for recourse, and recognition of toxic behavior. 

Best Practices for Gaming Online Safely

Playing games online can expose you to new risks. You can protect yourself by following some basic tips. Best practices for gaming online safely include:

  • Game with friends you know in real life. This is a good way of avoiding being paired up with people who might harass you.
  • Be extremely cautious about meeting online friends in person.
  • Confirm the identities of friends made through online gaming. This is very important if you plan on meeting them in the real world.
  • Refuse to give out personal information. Use in-game tools to block users asking for this info.
  • Do not click on suspicious links. If you accidentally click on a link, disconnect your device from the internet right away. You should then scan the system for malware.
  • Block suspicious or abusive individuals. You may also be able to mute them, depending on the specific game you’re playing.
  • Report suspicious or abusive behavior. Games have different reporting features, so be sure to get familiar with them.
  • Be aware of what harassment looks like. Harassment can take different forms in different games. For example, repeatedly pinging teammates or spamming chat can be a reportable offense. Constantly following and badgering a player in a massive, multiplayer online game can also be considered harassment. Some types of abuse, such as sexual harassment, are universally bannable offenses.

Online Harassment at Work and School 

Online harassment can follow you in the real world at work or school. 2020 saw a massive rise in remote schooling across the globe and a rise in remote work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans spent 5% of their time working at home. That figure would rise to 60% in spring 2020. While technology often facilitates change for the better, some things don’t change quickly enough.

Much of the online abuse targeting women at work takes the form of sexual harassment. Women filed 83.2% of workplace sexual harassment charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2020. Being in a remote work environment doesn’t prevent harassment. 

This abuse also extends to schools. A 2021 report states that 58% of U.K. girls aged 14-21 have experienced public sexual harassment in their learning environment. 66% of this harassment was carried out by someone who attended or worked at the same program. One youth-focused survey found that 64% of those harassed online did not report being bullied while attending school on campus.  

These numbers show ongoing inequality in professional and educational environments for women. Studies have found that the effects of sexual harassment in a professional environment are far-reaching, negatively affecting women’s long-term job satisfaction and career prospects. These effects are no more or less damaging whether they are in-person or online. 

Reporting Harassment

Always document instances of harassment whenever possible. This includes any offensive messages, the usernames of everyone involved, and notes on when the harassment took place. Your options for reporting harassment include:

  • Bring the issue to your teacher or boss. They should be able to help you stop the harassment.
  • Follow work policy by reporting harassment to your HR department or appropriate office.
  • Determine what options are available for anonymous reporting if that is more comfortable for you.
  • File a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your school district.
  • Take legal action. 

Reporting harassment can stop the behavior. More than that, it can result in organizational changes to prevent future harassment. Based on the severity of the issue, you may also be able to seek help for the behavior through legal recourse. A court may demand that the harassing behavior stop. You may also get compensation.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the act of bullying someone through electronic means. Surveys show that about half of children aged 10 to 18 find themselves on the receiving end of cyberbullying. Girls might be three times as likely as boys to face cyberbullying. 

To keep safe from bullying, it’s important to document and report it. If a friend or family member is being bullied, you should support them by helping them do this. If they’re expressing thoughts of hopelessness or suicide, consider directing them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Using Online Technology to Keep Yourself Safe in the Real World

If you’re worried about using the internet, know that many tools can help you keep safe while online. The following are just a few apps that can help protect you from danger and harassment in real life:

  • Find My Friends: This GPS app allows friends to be aware of each other’s whereabouts. 
  • Walksafe: This app collects data about criminal activity and helps you plan walking routes to avoid areas with high crime rates. 
  • Red Panic Button: When activated, this app will immediately alert your emergency contacts with your location.
  • One Scream: This app can detect a scream and send a text and audio message with your location to your emergency contact. 
  • SOS Stay Safe: This app will alert your emergency contacts about your status. It can share your location and battery level as long as it is activated. It will also record and send an audio clip with a shake of the device. 
  • Silent Beacon: This app will send your location to selected contacts in real-time. 
  • BSafe: When activated, this app will send a sound alarm along with information about your location to your emergency contacts. Your phone will also begin live streaming to these contacts. 
  • Vault Platform: This is a Harassment Reporting App that has a feature called GoTogether. This will delay a report until another person files a similar complaint. This will prevent any “one” person from having to stand alone. 
  • #NotMe: This is a harassment reporting platform. 

Privacy and Information Security

Breaches of privacy are a growing problem on the web. Identity theft affects about one in 20 Americans per year. In 2018, 32.7% of respondents for a Statista survey reported that their social media or email accounts had been hacked. Cybersecurity threats are always evolving. It is important to be aware of how you can protect your privacy and personal information. 

Best Practices

If you want to protect your privacy while online, you’ll need to be vigilant and keep some best practices in mind. Some tips for protecting your information online include:

  • Use a strong password.
  • Use encryption.
  • Use multi-factor authentication.
  • Do not connect to public Wi-Fi.
  • Do not share personal information.
  • Do not click on suspicious links.
  • Research online organizations to see if they’re legitimate.
  • Use a virtual private network (VPN).
  • Use a secure device.
  • Use antivirus software. 

How to Avoid Being Doxxed or Blackmailed

Doxxing is when somebody publicly identifies or publishes private information about you. It can have a serious impact on your mental health and professional life. In some cases, it can even lead to physical harm. Good measures to avoid being doxxed or blackmailed online include:

  • Not sharing personal information online;
  • Being careful of how you store sensitive materials;
  • Using secure devices;
  • Securing your online accounts;
  • Confirming the identities of people you interact with online;
  • Researching the validity of online organizations;
  • Using a quality VPN to anonymize your data in transit;
  • Only using unique photos for public posts (to avoid reverse image searches);
  • Removing identifying information from posts (e.g. phone numbers in screenshots);
  • Requesting for Google to remove your personal information

Additional Resources

Beyond the above tools and information, some more pages help you prevent or report online harassment. Other resources that can help you avoid and navigate online harassment include:

  • Is a VPN Worth It?: This guide explains what a VPN is and what benefits it can afford you related to cybersecurity. 
  • NetSmartzKids: This website helps teach young children about online safety. 
  • NSTeens: This website helps teach teenagers about online safety. 
  • StopBullying.gov: This government-sponsored website offers information and resources related to bullying. 
  • GamesHotline.org: This is a hotline for gamers who are experiencing online harassment.

The scope of online harassment targeting women and girls can be dispiriting. By preventing and reporting abuse whenever it occurs, we can create a more welcoming online environment. If you or a loved one experiences online harassment, use the above tips and resources to resolve the issue.

Published on: September 27, 2021