We all know that life for women on the Internet isn't a nice fragrant bouquet of flowers on a sunny afternoon. It's difficult, taxing and abusive. For some women, however, the task of dealing with this kind of behavior doesn't magically start in adulthood — it starts when they're teenagers.
According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, the experiences of teen girls on the Internet echo those of older women. After speaking with more than 1,000 teens aged 13 to 17, researchers discovered that 35% of teen girls have been forced to block or unfriend a person whose flirtation tactics crossed a line and made them uneasy. The kicker? Just 16% of boys reported facing the same issue.
"Just as adult women are often subject to more frequent and intense harassment online, teen girls are substantially more likely than boys to experience uncomfortable flirting within social media environments," the report's authors wrote.
While 35% is certainly not a majority, it is a startlingly high number given how young these girls are and the severity of their response. Blocking or unfriending somebody on a social network — particularly given how popular and important these spaces are for young people — is not a step taken thoughtlessly.
Harassment comes from people they know. Just as in real life, inappropriate, unwanted behavior often comes from familiar people: friends, schoolmates and peers.
Christina Casiano, a 15-year-old high school student who lives in Austin, Texas, told Mic that she's had to deal with repeated advances from a boy she isn't interested in.
Casiano told Mic about an older boy — let's call him Jason — who stalked her on multiple social networks. "He liked me around five years ago, and he still does," she said. "It's uncomfortable because he'll make new accounts just to see what I'm up to, because I don't like setting myself private on anything. But I would block him, and he'll make another account to see me. And he'll make another one. And it's been going on since sixth grade."
Just as in real life, inappropriate, unwanted behavior often comes from familiar people: friends, schoolmates and peers.
For Casiano, the harassment wasn't enough to cause her to turn to her parents or a guidance counselor. Still, she used the word "creepy" multiple times to describe him. "Whenever I would post selfies or just [pictures] of me, he'll screenshot them" on Snapchat, she told Mic. "I don't know what he's done with all those, but he has them."
Casiano wasn't Jason's only victim. He went after her friends, and even went so far as to show up at a girl's house because he was "upset."
"He was like, 'Oh, I'm going to your house,' and she's like, 'No, don't go to my house, I'm not even there. My family's there, don't go,'" Casiano said. "And then he went to her house anyway."
Part of the issue, she explained, is that these spaces — Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Kik — are ostensibly for private material, but they're publicly viewable.
"You have to be very careful what you say and do," she said. "[There's] a lot of harassment. It's hard."
The behavior is part of a much larger issue. The behavior that teen girls like Casiano face online isn't isolated — it's part and parcel with living and moving through the world as a woman.
"It's one of those ways that you get acculturated as a woman, of how you operate — from walking down the street to being online," Rosalind Wiseman told Mic in a phone call. Wiseman is a parenting educator and the author of Queen Bees and Wannabees: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence.
The nature of an online interaction in which a teenage girl is moved to block, mute or unfriend an unwanted suitor is similar to situations millions of women face every single day. It's analogous to walking down the street and finding yourself the target of harassing or objectifying comments. The two occurrences happen in different spaces, but they're symptomatic of the same issue: a person, typically a man, believing he has the right to a woman's time, space or body.
"I'm surprised it wasn't higher," Wiseman told Mic of Pew's 35% figure. "What's scary to me about [the young ages] is that they get normalized to people violating their boundaries in this way. They keep blocking. It's putting all the responsibility on them."
But that problematic dynamic is a familiar one to women the world over: When someone comes after you, it's on you to ward them off.
Casiano feels that in an ideal world, no one should forced to make their accounts private; instead, everyone should be expected to behave morally. "It sucks you can't share everything or express how you feel, really, if people are to comment hateful things," she said.
Yet Wiseman emphasized that while walking down the street and fielding undesired contact from someone on the Internet are similar, they're not exactly the same. The Internet is a peculiar combination of both public and private, a distinction Casiano also pointed out.
"It's just one more avenue," she said. "What's tricky is that it's a public and private space at the same time. So this walking down the street thing, using that analogy — you feel like OK, well, you can go into a store. If somebody's harassing you you can go into a store and you can get some measure of space. But if somebody was using something like Snapchat, or somebody was trying to get to them through what they use for [their] more private lives, that would be really different."
So what's a girl to do? "This is one of the problems about being female in this situation," Wiseman said. "She can post those selfies, and she can do her stories and all that kind of stuff, but she's giving him more fodder." She argued that it's not enough to simply send young girls off into the wilds of the World Wide Web without first warning them of what's out there.
"That's why these issues are big. She absolutely has the right. A thousand percent she has the right, and yet she lives in a world where that guy is going to want to take that and objectify her and commodify her or God knows what," she said. "I'm all about your rights. But I'm also about you being able to uphold your safety and to be honest with yourself about the situations that you're in so that people don't take advantage of you."
Of course, the responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of the boys who act out in these ways. A girl can do all that's in her power — blocking, unfriending — to stop bad behavior, but she's not the aggressor in this dynamic.
"It is absolutely unfair and unjust to not talk to boys about their responsibilities to themselves and to other people about these issues, and not in a way that makes them feel like crap and not makes them feel like abusers," Wiseman told Mic.
Parents, too, need to be aware of the ways in which teenagers act online — but they're not always prepared to do so.
"It's about things that adults are really, really scared to talk to kids about, or they're still overwhelmed by, or are reactive about," Wiseman said. "It's sex and technology. We struggle."
But for teen girls who are the targets of online harassment and the adult women they will become, it's deeply important that this struggle is properly addressed.
As Christina Casiano put it, "I think when I get older it will change, because when you're adults, you're just better [at] thinking. It's just silly games, but I just think it'll get better, and you'll be around people who won't discourage you. If you put yourself around those people, it just gets bad."