Young people aged 12 to 18 are unlikely to report receiving, or being asked to share, non-consensual sexual images to their school, parents or social media platforms such as Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram, according to research led by UCL.
The findings, released by the UCL Institute of Education, the University of Kent, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the School of Sexuality Education, show that teenage girls are overwhelmingly affected by the impact of unwanted image-sharing and that the practice has become ‘dangerously normalised’ for many young people.
The study involved 480 young people from across the UK – 366 via an online survey, with a further 144 participating in in-depth focus groups. From the survey findings, just over half of participants (51% – 54/106) who had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent reported doing nothing. When asked why they didn’t report the incident, around a third of people said ‘I don’t think reporting works’.
Among young people who said they had received unwanted sexual content online or had their image shared without their consent, 25% told a friend (27/106), 17% (18/106) reported issues to social media platforms, 5% (5/106) to parents and just 2% (2/106) to their school.
Of the 88 girls taking part in the focus groups, 75% (66) said they had received an image of male genitals, with the majority ‘not asked for’ or ‘unwanted’. Participants described instances where the senders were adult men who had created false identities, but also discussed episodes of online harassment and abuse from boys in their age range and known peer groups. From the survey findings, participants reported that nearly half of incidents of image-based sexual harassment were from unknown adult men, based on profiles.
Lead author of the report, Professor Jessica Ringrose, UCL Institute of Education, said: “Young people in the UK are facing a crisis of online sexual violence. Despite these young people, in particular girls, saying they felt ‘disgusted’, embarrassed and confused’ about the sending and receiving of non-consensual images, they rarely want to talk about their online experiences for fear of victim-blaming and worry that reporting will make matters worse.
Professor Jessica Ringrose, UCL Institute of Education, speaks on youth experiences of harassment
“We hope this report allows all of us to better identify when and how image-sharing becomes digital sexual harassment and abuse and spread the message that, although the non-consensual sending and sharing of sexual images may be common and feel ‘normal’, it is extremely harmful.”