Violence against women and girls comes in many forms and one of the most insidious is the growing phenomenon of internet based abuse. Normally taking place on social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, rates of sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats are exploding amongst children and young people. Teen girls are the most frequent targets and the most psychologically affected, with increased rates of self harm, suicidal ideation and death by suicide coinciding with the advent of social media. This is a concern that is becoming increasingly urgent to address, as rates continue to climb in this population.
Whilst many professionals who work with children and young people may be aware of some of these issues, there are variable levels of understanding and a large amount of this is most likely to be acquired knowledge rather than the result of focussed education or consciousness raising. Teachers, for example, are indicating that they are becoming aware of trends from listening to their pupils’ discussions or attitudes to certain topics and some may even be learning information directly from social media platforms. Nurses working in schools and within CAMHS are likely to be in a similar position.
But, without specific education or training, it can be difficult for most people to understand what is driving this increase in abuse and its resulting harms. And understanding this is essential to the protective and restorative conversations that need to take place in order to reverse the damage we are witnessing to the wellbeing of young people and young girls in particular. Having conversations with young people about healthy relationships and attitudes has a limited impact, if we cannot locate and interrupt the specific messages they are internalising and how this influences and shapes their outlook.
One example of this is the rise of Andrew Tate, an influencer who is frequently trending on TikTok for his extremely misogynistic and right wing views. Whether it’s in support of him or denouncing him, clips of his views are everywhere and most young people with social media will be aware of him and what he thinks. Tate, and others like him, weaponise the insecurities of men and boys for profit; they teach heteronormative, hypermasculine norms as the answer to anxiety and depression and quite literally sell these and other harmful tips as secrets to success. Tate has a captive audience on social media, where outrage generates infamy thanks to algorithms geared at increasing engagement – even if the engagement is negative.
Troublingly, Tate frequently uses the misogynistic rhetoric of the Manosphere – a group of online extremist communities with hateful attitudes toward women and girls. Within the Manosphere, attitudes range from believing that women frequently lie about rape to believing that men are entitled to sex with women and that women should be distributed amongst men to ensure this. These communities have, in total, millions of members and their influence is increasingly becoming mainstream thanks to social media influencers like Tate. As a result, they are recruiting members in greater numbers and influencing mainstream rhetoric. Effectively, hatred of women is being normalised and even justified. All of this, unsurprisingly, translates into real world violence against women and girls.
What we are witnessing is the radicalisation of impressionable, inexperienced boys and young men. And the resulting violence they are perpetrating toward their female peers, at younger and younger ages. The risk to the wellbeing of young people, particularly girls, is significant and healthcare is not in a position to stand by and absorb the inevitable social and economic costs that will find their way to us. They will turn up in our A&E departments after assaults, our forensic medical services after rapes and our mental health services after trauma.
We must be ready to identify signs of misogynist radicalisation in boys and young men. We must be able to respond like we would with any other form of radicalisation to hatred and terrorism. We are witnessing mass murders from young men who are members of these online communities and we have yet to connect the dots, let alone be in a position to change things for young people. Greater investment in specialist gender based violence education and skills is essential but we first need to recognise that there is a problem in order to begin taking the necessary steps to address it.