Young people live in a culture where abusive behaviour occurring online is so normalized, they do not think reporting it will make a difference. This is according to a recent study by Western’s newest Canada Research Chair (CRC) Kaitlynn Mendes.
A sociology professor at Western, Mendes has been named the new CRC in Inequality and Gender (Tier 2), part of a new round of investments announced today by the Government of Canada totaling more than $102 million.
Mendes recently conducted research in the United Kingdom involving more than 1,500 teens (ages 13 to 18) and found they are very unlikely to report abusive online behaviour, either through the social media platforms themselves or to adults in their lives. Earlier this year, she presented this information to the U.K.’s Labour Party policy-makers, as part of a consultation in relation to a proposed online safety legislation that aims to make social media companies more accountable in responding to harassing and harmful behaviours.
Addressing the problem requires culture change, said Mendes. “These (abusive) behaviours are so normalized, many teens didn’t see what they were experiencing as a problem. Many others were concerned they would be blamed or wouldn’t be believed.”
Mendes said the data has revealed some insights as to why young people don’t report abuses in social media, despite knowing how to do so on the platform.
“Some reported negative experiences to a platform, but there was no action taken, or have reported it to school or to a parent and were blamed or victimized. So, they’ve learned it’s better not to report,” Mendes said. “Many also don’t report because they have previously been told not to do something – like add a stranger as a friend online – and they’re worried they would get blamed or not be supported, or worse, get their devices taken away.”
Working with the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, and the digital literacy organisation Media Smarts, Mendes wants to replicate the U.K. survey in Canada to determine the specific Canadian context and approach, a project that has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). For example, young Canadians use different apps than their counterparts in the U.K. and the approach to relationship and sexual health education is also very different. While the U.K. has a national curriculum, decisions are made at the provincial and territorial levels in Canada.
According to Mendes, it is also important to understand how schools are delivering these lessons, and what resources are available to teachers and students. In a piece she wrote for The Conversation, Mendes said there needs to be more focus on relationship and sexual education, and more education and conversations around consent, boundaries, ethical decision-making and healthy relationships, particularly as we look to life post-COVID-19
The pandemic, and a shift to more digital interaction, increased the risk of online harassment in two important ways, said Mendes. Young people reported engaging in riskier practices during COVID lockdowns, including sending more explicit images to someone they were in a relationship with. This, in turn, increases the risk that those images will be shared without consent.
Mendes’s U.K. research revealed fewer lessons in relationship and sexual education occurred during virtual learning.
“Schools have been struggling to deliver relationship and sexual education in the pandemic. Teachers are focusing on math and literacy and the parents may want that focus as well,” said Mendes. “Teachers are facing challenges finding resources and may be uncomfortable delivering (these types of education) when parents are in the background of the calls.”
“We need to be having these conversations; these are things young people are experiencing,” she said. “School is often one of the only spaces where they get to have these conversations.”
Drawing from experience
Along with surveys, Mendes uses arts-based approaches to gather information. In one such exercise, participants are given blank social media templates and asked to draw something harmful that happened to them online. The artwork can be shown to parents or teachers to provide a clearer understanding of the types of abuse occurring, and without sharing the original abuse, which is especially important in the context of unsolicited images or images shared without consent.
The approach also gives participants an alternative voice. “It’s a way to participate without having to voice the concerns or their experiences, it’s a way to share their experiences without worrying about what others will say to them,” she said.
Mendes is developing other projects focused on technology-facilitated violence. She is co-investigator on an SSHRC-funded project to develop a digital bystander intervention program to respond to digital harassment. She is also working with community groups and transition houses to track how violence associated with or perpetrated through technology is recorded or responded to, such as stalking using location features on devices.
Mendes said she will work on the existing strength Western has developed around gender-based violence prevention, including the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children, under director Katreena Scott, Nadine Wathen, Canada Research Chair in Mobilizing Knowledge on Gender-Based Violence, and lead of the Gender, Trauma & Violence Knowledge Incubator, and Claire Crooks, director of the Centre for School Mental Health.
The CRC program is designed to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. The program is supported by participating universities and funded through three federal funding agencies: SSHRC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. There are two levels to the CRC program: Tier 1 chairs (seven-year term) are recognized by their peers as world leaders in their respective fields; while Tier 2 chairs (five-year term) are recognized as emerging leaders in their research areas.
Western is currently home to 59 Canada Research Chairs.