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Australian girls believe online harassment is endemic

There are clear signals that online threats against women and attempts to invade their privacy are becoming societal norms in Australia

Recent research has revealed that seven out of 10 Australian girls aged 15-19 believe online harassment is endemic, and the same proportion of adult women think online harassment has become a serious problem.

A survey of 1,000 Australian women, commissioned by Norton/Symantec, revealed that one in seven had experienced online threats of physical violence. The situation is much worse among young women, with one in four women aged under 30 having been threatened with violence online and almost one in 10 experiencing revenge porn or “sextortion”, where the perpetrator threatens to release information or images unless the victim accedes to their requests.

However, only one in 10 victims of serious online abuse ever reports it to the police.

A Plan International and Our Watch survey of 600 teenage girls also revealed an unwillingness to report online harassment, despite the fact that 58% of the teenagers had received unsolicited or unwanted explicit material online. Only 28% said they felt comfortable about reporting incidents.

The report recommended that schools take a more active role in educating young people about their online rights and responsibilities, although in an already crowded curriculum, this seems a big ask.

As for employers’ responsibility to ensure work technology is not used to launch attacks, employment lawyer Lesley Maclou said it was important for organisations to have up-to-date ‘appropriate use’ policies for employee use of work technology.

Maclou, a consultant with Watson Mangioni, said that if organisations’ policies were comprehensive, there would be clear grounds for action if an employee was found to be trolling or launching an online attack from their workplace.

Companies could also have grounds for dismissal if they could show the employee was not performing his or her role properly, he added.

First-hand experience

Tara Moss, an author and online commentator, has had first-hand experience of trolling as well as online rape and death threats. She said she was not surprised by the survey results, but was alarmed at the very high rate of abuse experienced by young women.

She said there was a clear gap in women’s knowledge of their online rights, particularly among young women.

Moss herself has always reported death and rape threats, sometimes to online platforms, sometimes to the police, but she said the response was “patchy”.

Melissa Dempsey, senior director in Asia Pacific at Norton/Symantec, said this behaviour pattern is already taking an emotional toll on society – more than one in five respondents (22%) said they had suffered depression because of online attacks, and 5% had had suicidal thoughts.

Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue, an Australian agency established to tackle depression and suicide, said one in eight men and one in six women experience depression in their lifetime.

Norton/Symantec also surveyed men about their online experiences, and plans to release that data later this year.

Harman was concerned that rising online abuse might make women turn away from the online world, creating a digital divide between men and women. “Some data shows women are disconnecting,” she said. “We don’t want the unintended consequence to be people switching off and being unconnected.”

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