Technology on her terms 

By: Anna Cristina d’Addio, thematic lead, GEM Report 

While digital technology offers new opportunities for teaching and learning, it also comes with risks related to privacy, safety and well-being.  The internet – including its use as part of education – exposes users to misuse of their personal data, invasion of privacy, abuse, theft of identity, offensive messages and images, cyberbullying, scams, fake news and misinformation.  

The 2024 GEM Gender Report shows that girls are particularly vulnerable to some of these risks which can lead to decreased self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, negatively impacting their well-being. And the latter is important for learning, with consistent evidence showing the causal relationship between higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school well-being and academic achievement. 

Digital media strains mental health and well-being 

A growing body of research underscores the impact of digital media on the mental health of girls. The 2021/22 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study by the World Health Organization reveals a concerning trend: girls are twice as likely as boys to feel frequently lonely, with 28% reporting this experience. 

Digital platforms, particularly social media, have become central to the lives of many. However, the impact on adolescents, especially girls, can be profound and distressing, exacerbating well-being issues. Platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, with their algorithm- and image-based content, often expose girls to harmful materials that promote unrealistic body images and unhealthy behaviours, negatively affecting their self-esteem and body image. For example, according to the 2019 Global Burden of Disease study, girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer an eating disorder in their lives. A review of young people aged 10 to 24 years in 17 countries has highlighted the association between the use of social media and body image concerns, eating disorders and poor mental health.  The Center for Countering Digital Hate reports that TikTok’s algorithm targets teenagers with body image and mental health content every 39 seconds, with content related to suicide every 2 minutes and 36 seconds, and with content related to eating disorders every 8 minutes, potentially exacerbating mental health issues among impressionable viewers.  Amnesty International highlights that one in two videos displayed after spending 5 to 6 hours on the platform are ‘mental health–related and potentially harmful’. 

Studies also indicate that social media can reinforce harmful gender norms as they do not only reflect but also amplify inequalities shaping user experiences in ways that often perpetuate negative stereotypes and behaviours. Moreover, the addictive nature of platforms like TikTok has been criticized for distracting students, making concentration more challenging.  

Technology and school-related gender-based violence: A significant global issue 

Because of the increasing presence of digital technology in schools, digital environments can become arenas for gender-based violence also in educational settings. The rise of digital technology has facilitated several forms of sexual violence such as online solicitation, coercive sexting, and cyberdating violence – often making it easier to perpetrate such abuses without immediate consequences. Notably, image-based sexual abuse, significantly impacts girls and LGBTQ youth, undermining their safety and educational rights. 

Cyberflashing where individuals receive unsolicited explicit images via digital devices, is also a prevalent form of harassment. Studies indicate that a disturbing number of school-aged girls are victims. In Canada, one-third of undergraduate females reported exposure to some sort of digital violence. Image-based sexual abuse and cyberflashing were prevalent, with significant psychological impacts on the victims. In the UK, 88% of girls in schools reported receiving unwanted explicit images. And in Belgium, more than half of the girls aged 15 to 25 in a survey reported being victims of cyberflashing. This form of abuse extends to AI-generated harassment, like the creation and distribution of deepfake pornographic images, which has seen a dramatic increase. Notable incidents in Brazil and Spain involved deepfake images of female students being circulated among peers.  

Cyberbullying is another significant concern disproportionately affecting girls. OECD data reveals that 12% of 15-year-old girls reported being cyberbullied compared to 8% of boys. In Saudi Arabia, nearly half of the female university students experienced digital harassment. Boys, while also victims, are more frequently the perpetrators of cyberbullying. Studies in India and China echo this gender disparity, with boys more likely to engage in cyberbullying.  

Strong and effective legal frameworks and education responses are needed  

The need to protect children and youth against online digital risks is gaining momentum worldwide. International conventions, such as the 2011 Istanbul Convention, provide foundational legal instruments for combating cyberbullying and online violence, emphasizing the need for comprehensive policies to protect women and girls online and criminalizing offensive actions and behaviour.  

In response to these growing concerns, countries are also developing legal frameworks and educational programs to protect students, particularly girls. Initiatives range from the comprehensive guidelines in Portugal on teaching about gender and internet safety to the Kids Online Safety Act in the United States, which demands safer online environments for children and adolescents. In Italy, a 2017 law stipulated preventive actions and a strategy of attention, protection and education for children considering both their situation as victims and perpetrators. Slovenia has run projects to raise awareness about online dating violence among youth for the successful prevention of and protection from online violence and harassment of girls and women. 

About 1 in 4 countries have banned mobile phones in school with laws or policies. Some countries ban phones for younger students (e.g. Finland and France) and others for their older peers (e.g. the Netherlands). Some have blocked the access to specific social media or software in schools. 

Education systems worldwide are evolving to integrate digital safety into their curricula and implementing comprehensive cybersecurity training. The aim is to create safer educational environments educating students and educators about the risks and responsibilities associated with digital technology. For example, Cambodia and Viet Nam have included lessons on preventing sexual abuse in their school programs.  

Parental guidance is also essential 

The World Health Organization and various educational policies advocate for reduced screen time and increased monitoring of digital engagement by young users. Parents and educators need to be equipped to guide children in understanding and managing their interactions with the digital space. This includes setting boundaries on screen time, discussing the content they encounter online, and fostering skills in critical thinking and digital literacy to help them discern and manage online risks and to combat misinformation and potential online harm.  

The call to action is clear 

Empowering young girls with the knowledge, tools, and support they need to thrive both online and offline is essential.  

As the 2024 GEM Gender Report  recommendation argues, it has become urgent to protect education from these negative influences of technology. Addressing the intersection of gender violence and digital technology in schools is crucial for ensuring safe educational environments for all students, especially girls. Educators, parents, policymakers, and students must work together to develop effective strategies to mitigate these risks. Strengthening legal protections, enhancing educational curricula and fostering supportive school communities are essential steps toward combating digital gender violence. Informed policies, engaged parenting, and responsive education systems can help to make digital environments in and outside schools safer and more inclusive. By understanding the impacts of digital technology on well-being and taking active steps to mitigate risks, we can help to build a better future for all students.  


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