Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today. It's really an honour to be here with you.
One of the basic things we do at the Cyber-violence Prevention Project is to try to get schools and institutions to define cyber-violence, and to implement a policy with clear procedures and processes in place, as well as resources. When we try to get people to name cyber-violence and put it into their anti-harassment policies or student handbooks, and so on, we often hear “Well, it happened online, so it's not really real” or “It didn't happen on campus, so it's not our problem.” We need to begin with the acknowledgement that cyber-violence directed at girls and young women is inextricably linked to off-line violence.
For many of us today, and particularly for youth, there's no divide between online and off-line. 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 an online experience can be profound. They are experienced both online and off-line. In relation to this, online violence normalizes off-line violence. Being immersed in a digital culture that portrays sexualized violence, misogyny, the objectification of women, hypersexualization of girls, and discrimination against LGBT-plus and gender-nonconforming people as normal, as entertainment, or even as humour makes those representations or beliefs seem mainstream, palatable, or even acceptable in off-line environments.
The online environments and communities we interact in are important, and they have profound implications for our off-line lives. Defining cyber-violence and policy may seem like such a basic thing, but just having that definition in a student handbook or a policy allows women to use it as a tool to get help and to say “This is happening to me. It's not acceptable. I need help to address it.”
As technology becomes more pervasive in our everyday lives, and as designers and developers seek to make 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.
Cyber-violence is similar to other forms of violence in that it exists along a continuum, from the very broad social impacts to the more personal, individual impacts. At one end of the continuum, there might be the hypersexualization and objectification of girls and women in online spaces through popular culture, video games, and pornography, and then more individually focused acts of violence, such as threats and harassment, victim-blaming, revenge porn, stalking, luring, and grooming. The manifestations go on and on. In our research and our work with young people, we see them.
While all manifestations of cyber-violence 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're choosing to target. For example, an intervention that brought video game industry and ICT communities together to discuss preventing and eliminating hypersexualization and objectification of women, or the gratuitous representation of sexual violence for entertainment would be addressing a different end of the continuum than would knowledge mobilization with girls around grooming and luring, or providing policies, resources, and support to girls who are experiencing cyber-violence.
This entails making decisions about where we need to implement legislation, where we need policy, where we need educational initiatives or knowledge mobilization, and where we need to provide support and resources for those experiencing cyber-violence.
To do all of this, we need to engage in more qualitative research to create strategies that both are effective and make sense to the young people who are on the front lines of the issue. As someone who has worked on research projects both within academia and in community, I can say that those things are very different approaches when you're working with girls and digital culture, with academics, or with community projects.
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 to develop strategies collaboratively, while focusing on and getting the voices of girls and the people who are on the front lines of those issues.
Cultural and socio-economic divides are emerging in response to digital divides. Through our digital literacy initiatives, I have gone into a wide range of schools and community organizations in varied cultural, social, and economic contexts. I have begun to realize that the Internet is not the same for everyone. In organizations where there's a strong component of high-quality digital literacy education, young people seem to be better able to recognize gendered cyber-violence, and they're better able to navigate the situations in which they find themselves. They still experience cyber-violence. They still struggle with it. They don't like it. They don't necessarily understand it, but they recognize it as a social problem and a systemic issue rather than as a normal, acceptable behaviour that's simply an aspect of everyday life online.
I found that in schools and community organizations where young people have had no, or very limited, digital literacy education, they often spoke about the limits or risks of online spaces rather than the inherent opportunities. We need extensive comprehensive digital literacy education at all levels that denormalizes cyber-violence through a curriculum that helps us understand the economic, social, political, and ethical aspects of digital culture. That might mean incorporating it across disciplines into many aspects of education.
We sometimes see a gap between the ways in which adults see young people's engagement with digital culture and the reality of what young people are experiencing. I include myself in this category. This gap results in challenges with regard to 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, from parents, and from teachers, and 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 are afraid of being blamed, or they are worried that maybe adults will intervene in ways that would make the situation worse for them.
Girls often express that they feel pressure from the hypersexualization of online culture. We often feel that misogyny is very intensified, and we wonder why this is. One of the things we've noticed in our work is that people who are vulnerable off-line also often seem to be vulnerable online. We notice that young people whose off-line worlds are limited, who are at risk for undereducation and underemployment, and who are confined in their neighbourhoods, are also often confined in their online worlds.
An example of this is that if we consistently access online content that's highly misogynistic or sexually violent, then we risk creating filter bubbles. Our search engine will give us what it predicts we want based upon our previous clicks. In this way we create our own bubble that filters out the information or world views we aren't particularly interested in. This happens not only through algorithms, but also through the individual choices we make, both online and off-line, 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, and we tend to interact with people and communities that share our interests. They echo our perspectives back to us. Sometimes it can become intense, and someone with limited life experience tends to think that this is all there is and there's no way out.
How can we address this issue? We need to increase the skills of those people who lack digital literacy, and work on using technology to help young people consciously seek out varying and divergent world views, to help them critically evaluate information. When I work with communities of at-risk youth who've had adults helping them denormalize gendered cyberviolence and learn to access and then critically evaluate information that interests them, not only are they better able to navigate the online landscape, they're also usually engaging in developing solutions. They're talking about discussing interventions like the bystander approach, how to denormalize gendered cyber-violence, and how to support peers experiencing cyber-violence.
I think we also have to educate industry. There's a 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. I think we have to think forward about where technology is going. With the emergence of new technologies, and potentially new manifestations of cyber-violence, no one can predict where it's going or how people are going to adapt to it. 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 cyber-violence.