As in-person socialization continues its hiatus from everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that youth and adults alike have turned to online communication more than ever. As the preliminary data rolls in, Forbes Magazine reports that internet usage has increased by approximately 70%. Additional reports indicate that abnormal searches on websites like Amazon have thrown advertising algorithms for a loop as they try to adjust to the spike in demand of less commonly searched items such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper. What hasn’t changed, however, is the harassing, discriminatory and sexually violent behaviors that occur in digital spaces. Not only has the protection of a screen not been a barrier for these issues, the veil of anonymity has seemed to act as an incentive.
Recently, an article was written entitled When social media is sexist: a call to action against online gender-based violence. This blog post, first appearing on End Tech Abuse Across Generations’ (eTAG) website is written by Nabamallika Dehingia and explores the disproportionate amount of abuse hurled online at marginalized genders, particularly cis women and other femme identifying individuals. In reference to one study conducted by Amnesty International, the author writes “women who experience online abuse often adapt their online behavior, self-censor the content they post and limit interactions on the platform out of fear of violence and abuse. By silencing or pushing women out of online spaces, online violence can affect the economic outcomes of those who depend on these platforms for their livelihoods. It can also lead to loss of employment and societal status, in cases where online violence impacts their reputation (for e.g. in cases involving revenge porn or non-consensual pornography).” Additionally, the article points out that threats of violence and rape online could be a precursor to the occurrence of in-person violence.
Fortunately, as is true with in-person harassment, online abuse is preventable. Many of the same tactics used to interrupt violence in-person can be utilized in the digital sphere. Primary prevention strategies, such as bystander intervention, can be used online to disrupt the earliest stages of violence while tertiary prevention tactics like community care after an abusive situation can foster online environments that feel safe and protective. Risk reduction strategies can also be employed, and individuals can take steps to protect their space and well-being online. Even addressing harmful attitudes and misconceptions about sexual violence online may lead to digital communities that are less often plagued by violence. Additionally, eTAG, a national resource on tech abuse, offers a plethora of helpful resources for addressing common issues online such as nonconsensual pornography (revenge porn), cyber safety planning, and supporting youth survivors.
It is all too easy to perceive online spaces of being somehow removed from real life – that violence online is nominal insofar as it is not physical. We would be remiss not to acknowledge, however, that violence is violence no matter the venue and our work as preventionists does not begin and end in the classroom or community workshops. In tragedy lies opportunity and in bearing witness to violence lives the responsibility to get it right next time and in this moment now, more than ever, we must set the tone for our communities online and how we care for each other when in-person connection is not an option.