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Ofcom urges tech firms to keep women safer online

June 1, 2022

Real-world concerns about women’s safety and wellbeing are mirrored in the online world, according to figures from  Ofcom’sstudy into the nation’s online lives.

Its findings reveal that women are less confident about their online safety than men, more negatively affected by discriminatory, hateful and trolling content, and feel less able to have a voice and share opinions online.

Accordingly, Ofcom is calling for technology firms, who build the sites and apps used by millions of people in the UK, to act now to make the online world a safer space for women and girls.

UK women are avid users of social media platforms, spending more than a quarter of their waking hours online – around half-an-hour each day more than men (4hrs 11min vs. 3hrs 46min). But for many women, life online is not always a positive experience.

Ofcom’s study found that while the majority of people say the benefits of being online outweigh the risks, women are considerably less likely than men to agree (63 per cent vs. 71 per cent). Similarly, fewer women feel confident that they won’t come to harm online (64 per cent vs. 73 per cent of men).

Female participants in Ofcom’s research say they feel less able to share their opinions and have a ‘voice’ online (42 per cent compared to 48 per cent of men). Women are also less likely than men to feel free to be themselves online (33 per cent vs. 39 per cent). For many, life online can replicate harmful discriminatory dynamics that exist in wider society.

These findings form part of Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report which delves into our online lives and the tech companies behind them. Ofcom has also published a summary of the major online trends seen over the last year.

This year, the report includes detailed research into the harms people encounter online. It finds that, in the last four weeks, women who go online are more likely than men to have seen or experienced:

  • content relating to negative body image, excessive dieting or eating disorders (9 per cent vs. 6 per cent)
  • misogynistic content – that which objectifies, demeans or otherwise negatively portrays women (9 per cent vs. 7 per cent)
  • content relating to self-harm or suicide (4 per cent vs. 2 per cent)
  • Men who go online are more likely than women to have seen or experienced:
  • scams, fraud and phishing content (30 per cent vs. 25 per cent)
  • misinformation (25 per cent vs. 19 per cent)
  • content depicting violence (11 per cent vs. 7 per cent)

Overall, men are more likely than women to have experienced potentially harmful online behaviour or content in the last four weeks (64 per cent vs 60 per cent). But the study shows that women are more negatively affected by the harmful content they encounter.

Women are more likely to be bothered or offended by hateful, offensive or discriminatory content or trolling when compared to men. More than two in five women (43 per cent) say they felt bothered by harmful content they recently came across online, compared to a third of men (33 per cent).

Women find hateful, offensive or discriminatory online content particularly concerning compared to men (85 per cent vs. 70 per cent of men), as well as trolling (60 per cent vs. 25 per cent of men).

Women from a minority ethnic background are particularly likely to be troubled by their harmful online experiences (52 per cent compared to 42 per cent of white women). They are also more likely to have experienced at least one potential harm in the last four weeks (67 per cent vs. 61 per cent of white women).

Ofcom’s researchers also asked people to share their feelings about how going online impacts their mental health.

Women aged 18-34 were more likely than any other group to disagree with the statement that “being online has a positive effect on my mental health” (23 per cent vs. 14 per cent for the average UK adult, and 12 per cent of men). Notably, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of Black women also disagreed with this statement, higher than white women (16 per cent) and Asian women (12 per cent).

Half of adult internet users support further online safety measures, with more women in favour than men (56 per cent vs. 43 per cent). Women also regard the protection of online users as a priority – more so than men (44 per cent vs. 33 per cent).

The future Online Safety Act will place duties on tech firms, which will help ensure all users – including women and girls – are better protected against online harm. As online regulator, Ofcom will make sure tech companies meet their duties to improve user safety while championing the great things about the internet, including free speech.

“The message from women who go online is loud and clear,” asserted Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s Chief Executive. “They are less confident about their personal online safety, and feel the negative effects of harmful content like trolling more deeply.”

“We urge tech companies to take women’s online safety concerns seriously and place people’s safety at the heart of their services. That includes listening to feedback from users when they design their services and the algorithms that serve up content,” she advised.

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