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More needed to combat children’s experiences of non-consensual sexual content on social media

24 January 2020

More needs to be done to clearly signal the importance of digital sexual consent to young people argues Professor Jessica Ringrose.

Mobile phone

Speaking at a conference in Belgium, UCL Institute of Education (IOE) professor Jessica Ringrose argued more needed to be done to combat children’s experiences of non-consensual sexual content sent to them through social media networks.

The presentation focused on recent research that demonstrates that many young people experience a daily barrage of unsolicited sexual images on social media. Referring to her innovative methodology that uses memory work and drawing to recover ‘disappeared’ and ‘deleted’ online content, Professor Ringrose said: “We found this method was an important way for young people to discuss for the first time content they were upset or embarrassed by in a supportive environment and also learn tools to report and protect themselves.”

Drawing of messages a teenager received via social media

Professor Ringrose explained that for girls, receiving unwanted ‘d*ck pics’ or being harassed for nude photographs is happening daily on some social media channels. However, they often feel it’s useless to report this to the platform because nothing is done. She also explained that girls found coping with unsolicited images from boys they knew much more difficult than from strangers, because reporting could cause girls to be stigmatised by their peer groups.  Many boys are also being harassed by “robot” porn accounts.

The conference, ‘Betternet Lab: Moving away from sluts & macho’s online’, aimed to give guidance on how to deal with gender stereotyped behaviour online and offline. It sought to provide recommendations to a wide range of professionals who come into contact with young people in one way or another, including social workers, teachers and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), among others.

Professor Ringrose suggested that people have to move away from the current victim blaming messaging that focuses on girls sending sexual images; and bad concepts like 'secondary sexting', and specifically shift to naming such non-consensual sharing of images as image-based sexual abuse.

Professor Ringrose argued looking at how toxic masculinity, male entitlement, toxic femininity and girls seeking competitive visibility exist online, could be helpful outlining digital sex education lesson plans she has developed with Sexplain. She also called for awareness of how social media influencing works.

Professor Ringrose recommended that we need to pay attention to the vast range of unsolicited, non-consensual sexual content there is and equip young people to address it. She concluded that there needs to be a drive to clearly signal digital consent. There also needs to be explicit messaging about technologically facilitated sexual violence and image-based sexual abuse and routes to provide accountability from all stakeholders.

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