Last Thursday I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak out at the launch of Yvette Cooper's new cross-party campaign "reclaim the internet", which is targeting sexual harassment and trolling online. Speaking on behalf of Girlguiding I was able to draw attention to the impact that these behaviours are having on young people and why it's really important that more is done to combat online bullying and abuse.
As a young person growing up in today's society which is so focused on technology it can sometimes feel like you are constantly "switched on". The number of different social media platforms combined with the fact that I don't know of a single friend who doesn't own a smart phone means that we are always connected, always engaging on a platform of some description and finding it more difficult to get away from using the internet for communicating with others.
Whilst there are obvious advantages to the use of social media, there are also downsides which are becoming more apparent. Our recent Girls' Attitudes Survey shows that among girls and young women aged 11 to 21, two in five say they have experienced bullying on social media (42%). This is particularly high among girls at secondary school aged 11 to 16 (45%), where underage use of public social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is very common.
This bullying can put young people off using the social media sites, leaving them feeling isolated and lonely, but the problem does not always come from people known to the young person. And sexist abuse online is a specific problem and young women can face sexist and often violent harassment online.
Speaking out on sites such as Twitter has led to "trolling" which ranges from undermining the woman speaking to threats of rape. Our research has found that half of girls are aware of the sexist abuse of high profile women online and say that this negatively affects how they act and feel related to social media and speaking out. This includes girls saying they are scared they will also receive abuse if they speak out on social media, just because they are a girl. The internet should be a place where young women are encouraged to speak out on issues that are important to them, not receive online abuse for voicing an opinion.
When I tweeted about Equal Pay Day I got responses from men on twitter telling me it was all a lie and that women were making a fuss over nothing. This kind of reaction seems tame in comparison however when my friend, aged 18, tweeted about feminism and was told that she "should be raped".
Another one of my friends who is only 16 was trolled on Instagram recently, when a strange man began making sexual comments on any of her pictures which had her legs in it. The worst part of this was that she felt guilty, like it was her fault and she had been asking for it by posting these photos. This kind of violence and sexual intimidation which is shown towards girls who speak out online is completely unacceptable and is used to silence girls' voices.
The abuse girls and women face online is a reflection of a society where girls can face harassment on a daily basis, including at school. Trolling and abuse online must not be seen by girls as the consequence for speaking out online. They shouldn't have to learn to deal with it. It's never fair to expect a 15 year old girl to brush off threats of rape.
I think 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.
For me, schools providing better information about equality, consent and gender equality is an important part of what needs to be done to tackle online abuse.