Our world can be a difficult place to navigate, and I’ve learned the hard way that for women, these struggles are especially acute online. Walking down the street is one thing—if someone yells at you, you can escape to your home; if they attack you, you can call the police. The tangibility of real world dangers doesn’t make them less vile, but their solutions are far more concrete.

Online, it’s a different story. Most of us can’t avoid the Internet much as we may try. Log on for a second, and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by open windows, through which masked figures are free to shout obscenities without recourse. From cyberbullying, to online harassment, to stalking, the Internet too often is a hostile environment in which young people feel anything but safe.

As someone who has been attacked online, I’ve felt the Internet’s ire and the emotional damage that follows. Because of this, I feel it’s my duty to raise awareness of what is a very serious issue, and one that’s only getting worse in today’s day in age. 

The big picture

Bullying is a tale as old as time (and yes, Beauty’s “Beast” was a bully). If you can think back to grade school, you’ll get exactly what I mean. In order to feel powerful, kids would band together and put other kids down, whether through actual violence, verbal insults, or other forms of subjugation.

Today, schoolyard abuse isn’t limited to recess time: it can happen 24/7 through text or social media. According to cyberbullying statistics from the i-SAFE Foundation, half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and the same amount have been perpetrators of online abuse. Over a third experienced cyber threats, one in four experienced relentless cyberbullying, and well over half don’t tell their parents.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying (36%) compared to boys (33%), with boys reporting more involvement in every type of offending behavior. Girls are more likely to make mean comments or spread rumors on social media, and boys prone to visual bullying or insults through gaming. Predictably, cyberbullying has a measurable impact on victims’ self-esteem—something all kids need in these formative years, and if the confidence gap is to be believed, arguably for girls more than boys.

You may think that graduating into adulthood wipes this slate clean, but you’d be wrong.

Men and women experience online harassment long after their hormones are under control. According to Pew research from 2014, four in ten Internet users are victims of online harassment at varying degrees of severity. For young adults, and young women especially, the extent of this is harrowing.

“Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment,” Pew reports. “In addition, they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”

2016 research from Data & Society agrees. While adult men and women experience online harassment at equal rates, women are more are affected by a wider variety and more serious violations, including “harassment of long duration, sexual harassment, and cyberstalking” as well as “invasion of privacy through the exposure of sensitive personal information.”

Cyber harassment often comes from people you know, but can be perpetrated by strangers as well.

It’s clear that cyberbullying is just the tip of the iceberg, and that what’s beneath can be even uglier for everyone involved, not to mention harmful to young women. But how do we reverse this culture of digital cruelty? Can we?

Potential solutions

There is no hard and fast fix to cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse. But there are certain factors that could mitigate it.

Parents, educators, and other role models can teach young people not to fear reporting online harassment; to disengage from technology, protect their privacy, and block abusers; to record every instance with screenshots; and to stick up for others when they witness bad behavior.

And as much as tech is problematic in this instance, it can be helpful too. There are digital tools that flag online abuse, especially on social media, or let kids make anonymous reports.

Adults are another story. If you haven’t learned your lesson by the time you hit 25, let alone 30 or 40, you may never change, but you could be prosecuted. The best we can do is protect victims and advocate for policies that penalize harassers that engage in illegal behavior like extortion or stalking.

Supporting organizations laying the groundwork for a future of online decency, in my opinion, can also make a world of difference. CyberSmile, ETCB, STOMP out Bullying, and the Megan Meier Foundation are all incredible nonprofits worth looking into.

If we can clean up cities and make them safer for pedestrians, it stands to reason the same can be done for the web. I hope you’ll stand with me against this behavior so that future generations of girls (and boys!) will feel safe and confident, both online and on the street corner.