online safety

Girls ask friends for help first: a need to redesign online safety protocols

“put on some clothes and stop posting slutty photos”

Year 7 girl commenting about other girls her age on social media

Being a girl aged 12 to 14 is a risk factor for cyberbullying and sexting, however gender and age-specific protocols are not being explicitly promoted in online safety programs or anti-bullying campaigns. Instead, for more than a decade, Australian online safety programs have focused on generic strategies that encourage all young people to adhere to first responder rules which include blocking and reporting. The general assumption is that young people are ready and willing to step forward, that they have the courage and confidence to speak up against others.

However, my research demonstrates that when girls aged 12 to 14 experience stressful online situations with peers, they do not use these strategies. Time and again, girls in my research wanted to find their own way of dealing with online problems. Typically, they did not want to report the problem. Usually they asked friends for help and support. As one young girl said, “I’m not a snitch, I’d rather just put up with it”.

In their talk about online safety, the girls raise some key points.

Key findings from my research

Girls don’t want to tell their parents

First, telling parents is “social suicide”. Banning and punishment are two reasons given. Friends stand with you and support you, but adults blame you, punish you, and take away your phone. “They think you’ve done the wrong thing and they punish you.”

These outcomes explain, at least to some extent, why girls prefer to talk to friends about online problems not parents. This arrangement should come as no surprise given mainstream online safety messages are almost always framed in consequential terms and typical parent reaction is to restrict and monitor.

Girls look to friends for help first

Second, girls say the go-to, talk-it-out contacts are friends. Girls ask friends for help because they are supportive, trustworthy, and loyal. Girls want to be believed. They want someone to support them during their trauma, someone to be shocked over the incident, and someone to deny their personal culpability. They want things to get better and believe friends can help with that.

Likewise, girls want to help friends who are in trouble. As one said

I had a friend who was getting bullied. I tried to help her. I’d try to make her happy and get her away from all the bad stuff that was happening. In the end, I went and talked to the person who was bothering her.

But the ‘helpers’ also need help

Girls say supporting friends is not without concern. Indeed, support practices often place them in a position of pronounced vulnerability. They often feel worried and anxious about their friend’s wellbeing because the bullied girl is frequently very distressed, experiencing anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and/or the beginnings of self-harm. As one helper put it,

… (crying) I had to tell someone, I sent her messages and a letter to tell her she would be okay. I thought it was helping but then she started posting messages that sounded like she was going to do something like hurt herself. I feel bad I couldn’t help her. Now her mum is coming to school. I think she’ll be mad at me. I was only trying to help.

Support strategies also place the helper in morally challenging situations. On the one hand, she is bound by unspoken friendship obligations to be loyal and trustworthy. On the other hand, she has an ethical responsibility to report online problems to an adult. Neither position is without consequence, but most girls choose to support and comfort friends rather than report problems to adults.

One of my friends posts some really racy pictures and guys are always asking her for nudes. I tell her that she should tell someone, but she says her parents will take it away. I am concerned about her because she is always getting pervs messaging her.

It is different with bullying from people outside life at school

In contrast, the girls were quick to report online problems when the instigator was a stranger or someone who could not affect their life at school. This point demonstrates that girls deal with online bullying in different ways depending on who the bully is (i.e., peer or stranger). This distinction is significant and needs to be explicitly addressed in online safety programs because “a lot can happen” before girls report problems to adults.

My findings may seem strangely out of place next to research reports which indicate girls do report online problems to parents and do use social media reporting tools. In my research, the girls were no different in that most of them say they report online problems to parents and use reporting tools when needed. However, the girls seek friendship support first and only report problems to adults if this support is not effective, or the bullying escalates, and/or the situation becomes critical (e.g. suicidal thoughts).

A need to redesign online safety protocols

My research highlights critical trends in young teenage girls’ online safety and help-seeking approaches. Girls aged 12 to 14 clearly want to manage and self-censor their online life but these experiences are not straightforward. The securities of belonging and fitting in overlap with adult monitoring and protection and girls need to make choices that are not necessarily optimal. Online safety protocols should be redesigned so they complement both the realities of girls’ friendship practice and the nature of adult censorship.

Roberta Thompson is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.  She is a sociocultural anthropologist interested in teenage girls’ everyday experience in and out of school, both on and offline. Her research explores the interplay between teenage girls’ everyday interactions with friends, gendered discourses, social media practice, identity construction, and online safety agendas.

Roberta Thompson is presenting on “I’m not a snitch”: Teenage girls, friendship and online safety and on Design-based methods for qualitative research with teenage girls at the AARE 2019 Conference.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here