In the interconnected expanse of today’s digital landscape, the internet has woven itself into the everyday fabric of our lives. The web provides the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, connects us with friends across continents, and presents a thriving platform for creativity and expression. The digital world can also reinforce existing gender inequalities and widen the gender digital divide. Despite the challenges, we have an opportunity to create a safer, more equal internet for women and girls, says ESET Southern Africa’s CEO, Carey van Vlaanderen.
As South Africa gets ready to commemorate Women’s Day, it’s an important moment to look at ways to ensure that women and girls can make the best of the opportunities the internet provides. According to a UN Women report “a large gender gap continues in technology and innovation, despite recent improvements. Women and girls are underrepresented in industries, academia, and the broader technology sector.” The same report also states that 259 million fewer women worldwide have access to the internet than men, and are disproportionately affected by online harassment, stalking, privacy violations, and other challenges.
In its study of 51 countries, UN Women reveals that 38% of women personally experienced online harassment, and that only one in four reported it to the relevant authorities, while nearly 9 in 10 women opted to limit their online activity as a result. Both in South Africa and around the world, trafficking is an ongoing concern. Women of all ages remain vulnerable targets for cybercriminals that try to lure them with fake online relationships and promises, grooming them to meet in person. Several other international reports, surveys, and studies also indicate that women are more likely to be confronted with violent and sexist hate speech on social media platforms and video games.
Despite the risks, limiting online activity is not the solution. Rather, women and girls can empower themselves and others to navigate the internet without fear. One crucial way women can take control over their online lives is by creating private social media profiles with two-factor authentication, only sharing content with known individuals, and limiting personal information that is shared. Women whose careers depend on keeping up a public profile may find it helpful to use multiple accounts; one that represents you professionally and another for personal use.
Engaging in open dialogue with young women and girls about their online activities is of paramount importance. While there is a risk of being exposed to cybercriminals, young women and girls are also susceptible to online bullying, and various other pressures that come with social media and other digital platforms.
Parents and mentors should consistently highlight the risks of social media, aiming not to instill fear, but to foster an environment of open conversation. Engaging in open, honest, and ongoing dialogue about how to be proactive and minimize potential risks is a crucial part of encouraging a responsible online presence and navigating the internet safely. Parents and teachers can make use of resources and tools like ESET’s Safer Kids Online Digital Matters to share online safety tips. These discussions should empower girls to navigate the digital world safely and confidently.
Practical tips for staying safe online
- Use strong passwords and security settings. Make sure your passwords are strong and unique, and use different passwords for different accounts. In addition to using a password, enable two-factor authentication whenever possible.
- Be careful about what you click on. Don’t click on links in emails or messages from people you don’t know. These links could lead to malicious websites that could infect your computer with malware.
- Save evidence of cyberbullying and report it. Save screenshots of the messages, emails, or recordings of the bullying. Most websites and apps have policies against cyberbullying and will take action if it is brought to their attention.
- Don’t give out personal information to people you meet online. In the online dating world, things are not always as they seem. Remember the Netflix documentary, Tinder Swindler? Just because someone says they are who they say they are, doesn’t mean they are. If you do decide to meet your online crush in person, make sure to meet in public for the first time, and let a trusted friend or family member know about your plans.
- Use resources and tools to encourage online safety. There are many resources available to help women, girls, parents, and educators navigate through the digital world safely and help their loved ones do the same.
- Block, mute, remove. Control your digital space and trust your gut. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable online, don’t be afraid to report them or block them. Don’t worry about hurting their feelings, your safety and comfort must always be your number one priority.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re ever uncomfortable with someone online, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you trust for help.
As women demonstrate time and time again, our voices can be a powerful catalyst for change. Women can campaign for stricter legislation and protection in the way governments and technology companies deal with online challenges. We also have an opportunity to take a preventative approach to online threats in our own lives by teaching young people, including young men, about respectful, appropriate communication.