Warning that teenage girls increasingly accept harassment and abuse as a standard part of life online 

A girl lies on her bed with her smartphone in front of her, possibly upset.

Research published by Internet Matters into girls’ online experiences raises concerns that some teenagers and their parents are normalising inappropriate online messages and disturbing content.


  • Report highlights how despite worries around negative contact from boys and men, time spent online is both important and joyful for most girls.
  • Internet Matters calls for new public campaign to change expectations of appropriate behaviour online towards girls, and for Ofcom guidance to tech companies to combat harassment.

Children's Wellbeing in a Digital World 2024

Britain’s leading not-for-profit supporting children and families to keep safe online, is today publishing its third annual “Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World” index.

Internet Matters is today publishing a report, So standard it’s not noteworthy: Teenage girls’ experiences of harm online, which reveals both the negative and some positive aspects of girls’ online experiences, and which warns that some girls and parents are often normalising inappropriate online comments, messages, and images from males.

The report highlights the dilemma faced by many girls – while they are drawn to the benefits of the online world, they’re also confronted with its downsides such as unwanted comments or male attention. Research by Internet Matters published earlier this year in its Children’s Wellbeing in a Digital World Index 2024 found that almost half (48%) of 15–16-year-old girls have been contacted by a stranger, a significant increase from 3 in 10 in the previous year.

The report says some parents have come to accept men harassing girls online as ‘standard’ – something that is particularly troubling given parents are often children’s main source of support around online safety issues.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with girls and parents, alongside data drawn from Internet Matters’ annual Digital Wellbeing Index. Its key findings include:

Spending time online is important to girls

  • 57% of girls aged 13-16 report that they feel mostly happy when spending time online, especially when connecting with friends and being creative.
  • Girls see the online world as vital for social connection, allowing them to stay in touch with friends through various social media apps and helping them to form new connections with like-minded people and communities so they feel less alone and more part of a community.
  • Girls find social media encourages creativity, from creating videos to sharing and viewing educational content. Many parents are impressed by their daughters’ use of social media platforms to create and share content with others.

Many experience harm online

The positive feelings girls experience online are often constrained by the fact that many experience harm online, such as harassment and exposure to undesirable and harmful content and contact. This is borne out by the fact 77% of girls aged 13-16 report online experiences that are harmful (or potentially harmful) – significantly more than all children (66%). There is a widely prevalent belief amongst girls that experiencing harms such as these is an intrinsic component of the digital space.

Some parents also display a lack of concern towards the online harms and harassment their daughters’ encounter.

Girls recall receiving messages from men

Girls recall receiving messages online from men who they considered ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’. Some girls mention being sent ‘dick pics’ on social media and messaging apps. This is so common that one parent said that their daughter receiving inappropriate messages from men is ‘so standard it’s not noteworthy’.

Internet Matters’ 2024 Digital Wellbeing Index reported earlier this year an increase in the percentage of girls aged 13-16 who said a stranger attempted to contact or send them messages (rising from 31% in 2022 to 38% in 2023).

“They’ve all had dick pics sent to them […] It’s so standard it’s not noteworthy and they just block it and move on. It’s so standard she [my daughter] didn’t tell me, it has become a completely standard thing to happen to a teenager and I don’t think it has had a deleterious effect on her. You don’t feel singled out if it happens to you because it happens to everybody.” – Mum of a girl (15) and boy (12).

Girls see and receive hateful comments

Girls discuss receiving and observing hateful comments on social media platforms. These comments target girls’ appearances, such as their clothes, weight, or bodies. Girls note that these comments are exclusively made by males, contrary to the narrative that girls often target other girls.

“Sometimes they comment on my personal appearance, those are the ones which tend to affect me the most. We get comments about or physical features, our face, calling us ugly or about our bodies. In my friendship group some of us are skinny and have one friend who is overweight, they comment on her and single her out.” – Girl, 16

Instances of online bullying

Some girls and parents report instances of online bullying on a wide variety of platforms, including social media and messaging apps which was said to impact anxiety and reactions to real world situations.

Content that makes them feel sad

Girls mention seeing content that makes them feel sad online, and they are aware that when they view or interact with these types of content they are then shown more similar content. Parents are also aware of this issue.

Seeing harmful content online

Boys and girls see harmful content online including self-harm images and child sexual abuse material. Children typically tell their parents in cases where they’ve seen this type of material.

“There were a few students who were circulating indecent images [of children], this got instantly reported and the police were involved.” – Mum of a girl (14) and boy (16).

The report sets out how girls want to enjoy their time online and, while they are adept at blocking and reporting unwanted communication, some girls ‘can’t be bothered’ to report accounts who are messaging them because it happens so frequently.

It argues that parental oversight and dialogue are important to digital wellbeing, but that girls and their parents cannot solve these problems alone. The report calls for a wider systems-based approach to tackling the harassment and harm girls face online that goes beyond simply providing education and tools for girls themselves – it needs to tackle harm and harassment at its root. It says this approach should include:

  • A public campaign to reset expectations about appropriate behaviour online, especially towards girls. This should include targeted messaging aimed at boys and men, which highlights positive male role models.
  • Ofcom’s forthcoming guidance on what online services can do to protect women and girls, due in 2025, should be as ambitious as possible, and tackling gendered harms must be a theme in all its other guidance and codes too.
  • Platforms should be developing their own responses to disincentivising harm and the harassment of girls.
  • Greater engagement with girls regarding the harassment and harm they experience online, placing their views at the heart of solutions.

Carolyn Bunting MBE, co-CEO of Internet Matters, responding to the report’s findings, said: 

“While we should be encouraged that many girls are enjoying the benefits of the internet and social media – particularly the opportunities they provide to be creative, and to make and strengthen friendships – we should be alarmed that millions of girls across the UK have come to accept upsetting content and harassment is a price they must pay for spending time online.

“According to our recent research, the number of 15–16-year-old girls being contacted by strangers online has significantly increased in the space of just one year. Yet girls not only seem to accept this as part and parcel of online life, but it is surprising to learn from this research how some parents are coming to see online harassment of girls as normal.

“The vast majority of parents are aware of their responsibility to support their children and are doing their best. But I am concerned that we’ve collectively lost sight of the fact that what is unacceptable offline should also be unacceptable online.

“We have to also confront the views of a minority of boys and men who think it’s acceptable to harass girls, enabled by tech which can fuel and amplify harassment.  Otherwise, this is going to be regular feature of girls’ online lives for many years to come.

“Ofcom’s forthcoming guidance on tackling online violence against women and girls, as part of the Online Safety Act, is a golden opportunity to tackle these issues head on. They must use it to tell online platforms what role they should be playing in keeping girls safe from harassment and harm.”

The Rt Hon the Baroness Morgan of Cotes, Nicky Morgan said:  

“Until the Online Safety Act was amended by the House of Lords it didn’t even mention the online safety of women and girls.  And yet we know that girls and women are far more likely to encounter harassment, threats and unwanted attention online.

“If we wouldn’t accept this in the offline world it is imperative that we do not accept it by default in the online spaces which our girls and young women cannot ignore and want to be a part of.

“I welcome this report – understanding the online experiences of girls is essential to make the internet and platforms a safer space for them.”

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