Deeply entrenched gender norms, biases and perceptions are affecting the ability of girls and young women to use the internet, influencing their online activity and hurting their access to information and work, a new report has found.
A survey of more than 10,000 users aged 14-21, and their parents, in over half a dozen countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and India, found that girls are constantly being monitored and told they are vulnerable and not competent online, 'creating a crisis of confidence.'
'This is resulting in girls setting up more protections and behaving more conservatively when connecting with others and sharing personal information online,' said the report by nonprofit Girl Effect, the Malala Fund, the United Nations' children's agency UNICEF and the Vodafone Americas Foundation.
'These attitudes are not just impacting girls' access and usage, they are influencing their self-confidence and shaping their own perceptions of their ability to use these tools to pursue their social, educational, and intellectual interests,' said the report.
The gender digital divide has persisted despite efforts by governments worldwide. A UNICEF study earlier this year showed that in 54 countries, the median gender parity ratio is 71, meaning that for every 100 adolescent boys and young men who use the internet, only 71 adolescent girls and young women do.
At the same time, women experience more online abuse, and harassment is driving girls to quit social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, recent studies have found.
Among digitally connected youth, 12% more girls than boys said that they feel self-conscious while using social media and are 11% less likely to post photos or comments online compared to boys of the same age, the report by Girl Effect found.
As girls' exposure to the internet is restricted by biases and fear of abuse, they do not see themselves as tech-savvy, and do not see the internet as something that is for them, the report from Girl Effect said.
'This creates a vicious cycle whereby girls avoid tech because they don't think it's for them, and then tech is seen as 'not for them' because they have been avoiding it,' it said.
As teenagers who scrutinize, regulate and limit their behavior online, women 'often carry these traits to their workplace, where they face difficulties in demonstrating their skills and building strategic connections,' said Mitali Nikore, a gender policy specialist at research group Nikore Associates.
'This negatively affects women's behavior at workplaces, constraining their labor market opportunities and professional advancement ... and their access to potential sources of revenue-generating activities,' Nikore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Besides better smartphone access for girls and young women, digital literacy programs and an end to discrimination based on gender norms are needed, said Nikore.
Girls must also be involved in creating digital products for their needs, said a spokesperson for Girl Effect.
For example, Girl Effect developed artificial intelligence-enabled chatbots in South Africa and India - Big Sis and Bol Behen ('tell me, sister') - with girls, as a source of accurate information on general health and sexual wellbeing for girls.
While new laws such as Britain's Online Safety Act and the proposed Kids Online Safety Act in the United States can help protect children somewhat, 'regulations can only go so far, and often lag behind technological advances,' the spokesperson for Girl Effect said.
'Adolescent girls and young women want to be involved in co-creating solutions; they have clear ideas for the functions, experiences, and strategies that could be applied to make the internet a safer, more accessible place.'