By Dr Shanly Dixon
On September, 25, 2016, I was asked to speak to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on the Status of Women Canada: Violence against Women and Girls in Canada. It was an honor to be asked and I felt very lucky to be able to speak honestly and from the heart about my experiences researching young people’s engagement with digital culture over the past decade and my work in the community with the Digital Literacy Project. I’m sharing my speaking notes from the event for anyone who might be interested.
One of the basic things we do with the cyberviolence prevention project is to try to get schools and institutions to define cyberviolence and implement a policy with clear procedures and resources in place. When we try to get people to name cyberviolence and put it into their anti-harassment policies or student handbooks etc. we often hear, “well it happened online so it’s not really real”. Or it didn’t happen on campus or at our place of work, so it’s not really our problem.
We need to begin with the acknowledgement that cyberviolence directed at girls and young women is inextricably linked to offline violence. For many of us today, and particularly for youth, there is no online/offline divide. Virtual spaces pervade every aspect of life as we are continuously connected to the internet, to our online communities and to each other. As a result, the physical, psychological, emotional and financial consequences of our online experiences can be profound and are experienced both on and offline.
In relation to this, online violence normalizes offline violence. Being immersed in a digital culture that portrays sexualized violence, misogyny, the objectification of women, hyper-sexualisation of girls and discrimination against LGBT+ and gender non-conforming people as normal, as entertainment or as humour makes those representations or beliefs seem mainstream, palatable or acceptable in offline environments.
The online environments and communities we interact in are important and have profound implications for our offline lives. Defining cyberviolence and policy may seem like such a basic thing but it gives girls and women who are experiencing it a “tool” to say – this is happening to me, it’s not acceptable, and you need to help me address it.
As technology becomes more pervasive in our everyday lives and as designers and developers seek to make our online interactions more powerful, meaningful and realistic, it’s critical to engage in concrete, effective initiatives to ensure that those technologies are developed and integrated into our lives in ethical ways.
Cyberviolence is similar to other forms of violence in that it exists along a continuum, from very broad social impacts to the more personal, individual impacts. At one end of the continuum there might be the hyper-sexualization and objectification of girls and women in online spaces and through popular culture, video games, pornography and then more individually focused acts of violence such as threats and harassment, victim blaming, revenge porn, stalking, luring and grooming. While all the manifestations of cyberviolence have negative impacts, it’s crucial to engage in research that will contribute to drafting strategies that are nuanced and focused enough to be effective.
Specific interventions need to be developed depending upon where along the continuum you are choosing to target. For example, an intervention that brought video game industry and ICT communities together to discuss preventing and eliminating the hyper-sexualization and objectification of women or the gratuitous representation of sexual violence for entertainment would be addressing a different end of the continuum than knowledge mobilization with girls around grooming and luring or providing policies, resources and support to help girls who are experiencing cyberviolence.
This entails making decisions about where we need to implement legislation, where we need policy, where we need educational initiatives, knowledge mobilization and where we need to provide support and resources for those experiencing cyberviolence.
We need to engage in more qualitative research to create strategies that are both effective and make sense to the young people who are on the front lines of the issue. As someone who has worked on research around girls and digital culture with both academic and community projects, (very different approaches) I think we need to create opportunities to combine the strengths of both those perspectives, bringing academia together with community organizations and law enforcement to engage in research and develop strategies collaboratively while focusing on including the voices of girls and the people who are on the front lines of these issues.
Cultural, and socio-economic divides are emerging in response to digital divides.
Through our digital literacy initiatives, I go into a wide range of schools and community organizations in varied cultural, socio-economic contexts. I began to realize that the internet is not the same for everyone. In organizations where there is a strong component of high quality digital literacy education young people seem to be better able to recognize gendered cyberviolence and better able to navigate situations in which they find themselves. They still experience cyberviolence, they still struggle with it but they recognize it as a social problem/systemic issue rather than as normal, acceptable behavior that is simply an aspect of everyday life online.
I have found that in schools and community organizations where young people have had no (or limited) digital literacy education they often spoke about the limits or risks of online spaces rather than the opportunities.
We need extensive comprehensive digital literacy education at all levels, that de-normalizes cyberviolence through curriculum that helps us understand the economic, social, political, and ethical aspects of digital culture and that might mean incorporating it across disciplines into many aspects of education.
We sometimes see a gap in terms of the ways in which adults see young people’s engagement with digital culture and the reality of what young people are experiencing and I include myself in this category. This gap results in challenges in crafting strategies that make sense to young people as well as in developing and implementing policy and legislation.
When young people engage with misogynistic or highly sexualized content it’s typically hidden away from researchers, parents and teachers. Because of the potentially controversial content, it’s kept private or secret. When young people run into problems they often don’t go to adults because they fear being blamed or that adults will intervene in ways that may make the situation worse for them.
Girls often express that they feel pressure from the hyper-sexualization of online culture and we often feel that misogyny is so intensified and we wonder why this is. People who are vulnerable offline are also often vulnerable online. We noticed that young people whose offline worlds are limited, who are at risk for under-education, under-employment and who are confined in their neighborhoods are also often confined in their online worlds.
For instance, if we consistently access online content that’s highly misogynistic or sexually violent we risk creating filter bubbles. Our search engines give us what it predicts we want based upon our previous clicks and in this way we create our own bubble that filters out the information or world view that we aren’t particularly interested in. This happens not only through algorithms but through the individual choices we make both on and offline and the power of our peers to influence the content we consume and produce.
The problem is that Filter bubbles tend to isolate us from opposing ideas and broader world views. We tend to interact with people and communities that share our interests and world view and in this way we create echo chambers where our perspectives are echoed back to us. The messages become intensified and with limited life experience and a reduced world view we might begin to feel like this is all there is and there is no way out.
How can we address this issue? We need to skill-up those people who lack digital literacy and work on using technology to help young people consciously seek out varied and divergent world views and critically evaluate information. When I’ve worked with communities of at risk youth who have had adults helping them de-normalize gendered cyberviolence, violence and learn to access and then critically evaluate information that interests them – not only are they better able to navigate the online landscape they are usually engaging in developing solutions. They are discussing interventions like the bystander approach, how to de-normalize gendered cyberviolence and how to support peers experiencing cyberviolence.
I think that teaching about the impacts of the content that we create from the very youngest of ages is crucial – because we are all content producers now – we all create and share posts and tweets and videos – we contribute to creating the online worlds we interact in and the choices we make have profound impacts for others.
This also applies to industry. There is potential for change through educating industry about the implications of the spaces they create and engaging developers in conversations about design affordances and the ethical implications of design choices.
Leading from that idea we need to develop strategies, legislation and policy that not only takes into consideration technology that is currently ubiquitous but considers future impacts and for that, we need to get buy in from industry.
When considering policy, legislation and strategies, it’s crucial to project forward and to attempt to plan for the emergence of new technologies and potentially new manifestations of cyberviolence. While no one can predict exactly how technology will evolve or how people will adapt to it, we do know that with the development of virtual reality technologies, which are becoming increasingly immersive and realistic we could be facing a whole new set of challenges around gender based cyberviolence. Collaborating with video game, virtual reality and social media industry to anticipate and attempt to avoid potential forms of cyberviolence relating to emerging technologies is an important aspect of developing effective policy and legislation going forward.