More controls called for as legislation lags far behind the reality of today’s connected world

ALMOST half of female social media users experience sexually abusive behaviour online, claims a University of Huddersfield researcher who is now arguing that the major platforms must do more to control the problem and that legislation is lagging far behind the reality of today’s connected world.

Megan Kenny is completing a PhD project in which she appraises and analyses the levels of online abuse experienced by both male and female social media users, ranging in age from the early teens to 70 plus.  Out of 370 anonymous participants in the online survey that she conducted, 261 were women and 46 per cent of them reported sexual victimisation.

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PhD researcher Megan Kenny PhD researcher Megan Kenny

The most frequent experience was being asked to share sexual images of themselves, followed by unsolicited sexual images and requests to talk about sex.  Some 41 per cent had experienced threatening behaviour online – mostly offensive messages. 

Some of the anonymous participants in Megan Kenny’s survey admitted that they had been perpetrators of cyberviolence themselves, with 13 per cent confessing to sexual behaviour.

In addition to compiling statistics, Megan also sought individual stories that illustrate the experience of suffering online abuse.  Distressed respondents included a woman who found that an innocent image she had placed on Facebook had been hijacked for pornographic websites.

“The findings confirmed what I anticipated, to be honest, particularly with sexual and threatening behaviour.  But I think that people are experiencing significant harm as a result of cyberviolence,” said Megan, who believes that online abuse needs to be taken more seriously by the psychology profession.

It is important to stop distinguishing between online and real life.  We live in a world in which online and offline are increasingly merging.  So it is all real life and it all has an impact.

Megan Kenny

Megan has been disseminating her findings – at a British Psychological Society Conference for example – and believes that the social media platforms need to take more responsibility over the issue of abuse.

“They are condoning this behaviour through inaction,” she said, adding that current legislation is inadequate.

“The world is changing and the law needs to change to catch up with it.”

Megan’s doctoral thesis is titled Who’s Following You? and she has investigated most of the common social media sites – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  She has also examined dating apps such as Tinder, but found that they were actually used less frequently for unwanted sexual behaviour.

Supervised for her PhD by Dr Maria Ioannou and Dr Laura Hammond, Megan followed a Bachelor’s degree in criminology with a Master’s in Investigative Psychology at the University of Huddersfield, before moving on to doctoral research.

Her post-doctoral aims include further avenues of research into the online world.  “I am interested in looking at impact of access to free sexual material online and how dating apps, like Tinder, are shaping interaction, how that is feeding into freely available pornography and how it’s impacting on women.”