The survey conducted for children’s charity Plan International UK involved 1,002 children between the ages of 11 and 18. While the results illustrated that all children can be targeted by online abuse, it highlighted the particular threat girls face.
The study found that 48 percent of girls had experienced some form of harassment or abuse on social media. A total of 29 percent admitted to receiving abusive messages from someone they know in person, and 22 percent said they had received abusive comments on a status or photo they had posted.
This has led to calls for parents across the Arab world to watch out for similar hijacking of social media to target girls in the region.
Ashjan Al-Ananzeh, head of advocacy and communications at the Jordanian Commission for Women, told Arab News that social media being used as a vehicle to peddle sexist hate was a growing worry. The biggest issue right now, she said, was that the victims do not report such abuse.
“Victims tend not to talk about it, they stay silent. We are doing workshops about online abuse and what to watch out for on social media,” Al-Ananzeh said.
“We have to train girls about what to be aware of and how to deal with it. It’s difficult to say whether (the number being bullied online) is rising, there are no statistics about it and the victims don’t speak.”
Al-Ananzeh said that dealing with the problem partly revolves around the cultural differences between the West and the Middle East. For example, images that would be considered normal in Europe might be thought of as unacceptable to some in the Arab world. Girls who had been victims of cyberbullying might not just feel embarrassment and shame — they may also face being punished or ostracized by family and friends should they speak openly about it.
“We are raising awareness, trying to tell women and girls to break the silence,” Al-Ananzeh added.
“Girls have to tell people, whether it be the police, the women’s complaints office we have here, their mother or family, or someone they trust if they feel too ashamed or feel they cannot tell their family.
“We have to be more open-minded and to let people know what’s right and what’s wrong and increase awareness.
“Our mandate is to increase awareness for women’s rights.”
A Kaspersky Lab and B2B International study conducted in the UAE in 2015 found that 40 percent of parents were worried about cyberbullying, with 48 percent reported to have intervened to protect their child from online abuse.
Last year, a BBC investigation found that there was an alarmingly high number of cases of women in the Middle East being shamed or even blackmailed with private and sometimes sexually explicit images. It also revealed the difficulty in persuading victims to speak up, such is the conservative nature of the region.
Louay Zreiqat, a police officer in the West Bank, told the BBC that the Palestinian police cybercrime unit handled 502 online crimes in 2015, many of which involved private pictures of women.
“Sometimes the photos are not sexual, a photo of a girl not wearing a hijab could be scandalous. A man could use this photo to pressure the girl to send more photos,” he was reported as saying.