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Social Media Abuse in Women's Sport

What’s the problem?

A BBC Sport survey[1] of elite female athletes in 2020 found that 30% of all respondents had experienced online trolling. Another study[2] funded by World Athletics investigating social media abuse on facebook and twitter reported that female athletes were the target of 87% of the social media abuse that the sample group faced during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. In Australia, professional sportswomen are three times more likely than their male counterparts to receive negative comments online[3].


Online racist abuse came sharply into the spotlight following the England Mens football team defeat in the Euros 2020, and racist abuse in football continues to be huge issue. Kick It Out[4] reported that almost half of the reports of online abuse it received across football in the 2022-23 season was racially based. The same organisation also reported that they had seen a 400% increase in reports in sexism and misogyny across the same time period. Of course, intersectional discrimination exists here too, if you’re black and a women you are even more likely to experience abuse. In the World Athletics study[5], 63% of the abuse experienced by female athletes was directed towards two black women (out of a sample of 81). Abuse against those identifying as LGBTQ is also rife, as much as 70% of LGBTQ+ adults in the USA experience online harassment[6]. Susannah Townsend, Olympic Gold Winning Hockey Player, has publicly spoken about receiving homophobic abuse every time she uses the #LGBTQ[7].


It is not only the volume of online hate female athletes receive but the specific types of abuse that make online abuse so harmful for women. Thirty three percent of women under the age of thirty-five have been sexually harassed online in comparison to eleven percent of men. In comparison men are more likely to be called ‘offensive names’ online (35% of men vs 26% of women)[8]. Two studies[9] [10]examined the types of online abuse received by elite female tennis players, and these were broken down into four broad categories: threats of physical violence, sexualization that focused on the female physical appearance, sexualization that expressed desire and/or proposed physical or sexual contact, and sexualization that was vile, explicit, and threateningly violent in a sexual or misogynistic manner. It is no surprise that women who are harassed online are twice as likely as men to report feeling extremely or very upset by the abuse[11]. Online stalking or harassing behaviours can sometimes lead to violence in the real world too[12]. So, experiencing anxiety as a result of online abuse is not in any way ‘irrational’.


Whether the abuse is sexually explicit or violent or more ‘everyday sexism’, women across sport report being impacted. It is not uncommon for female athletes to experience their body being commented on, ‘looking good’ or ‘too fat’ or ‘manly’ rather than comments on their sporting performance. They are also regularly told by trolls they should ‘go back to the kitchen’ or some other misogynistic trope[13].


What’s the impact?


Footballer Rachel Newborough[14] has talked publicly about avoiding social media so that she is not exposed to trolling or unwanted comments, but the impact of this is that female athletes can miss out on sponsorship opportunities or raising heir profile for life after football. Some women described wanting to give up their sport all together as a result of receiving abuse, others, such as Kirsty Gilmour, TEAM GB Badminton medallist find it infuriating and distracting with impacts on performance[15]. Female athletes report overwhelming body image consciousness (78% of respondents)[16]. Trolls focus on appearance, body shape and sexualisation of women athletes has to be a contributing factor. It is also not uncommon for women to experience mental health concerns, such as depression, as a result of receiving online abuse[17]. Sometimes this is caused by a particularly distressing comment or interaction and sometimes mental health issues arise as a result of the cumulative burden of having to deal with trolling or unwanted messaging.

Impacts on women of online abuse[18]:


What to do about it?

· If possible, have a trusted supporter monitor your social media account, especially during tournaments or games.

· If you receive abuse, block the account of the sender. Resist engaging with them.

· Report the message to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.

· Notify your sporting body or governing body about the abuse (if you are not sure how to do this, ask someone in your immediate support team).

· If you are a footballer, report the abuse to Kick It Out.

· If you are concerned for your safety or the safety of another, report the message to the police. If you think that the message constitutes a hate crime, document it, take a screenshot and report it to the police. In the UK you can report to the police by calling 101. If you are unsure, call the police for advice or speak to your governing body.

· Look into specific measures you can put in place on different social media platforms to reduce trolling, such as the ‘reply limit’ on twitter.

· If you are impacted by the abuse access support.


Where to get support?


· If you play football in the UK, you can access support through Kick It Out, here: Get support | Kick It Out

· Speak to the welfare or medical staff in your team or your sporting body for support in accessing mental health care, incident debriefing services or advice about protecting yourself online.

· Contact Sporting Chance, confidentially 24/7, for access to support for your mental health or emotional wellbeing and/or advice or signposting by calling 07500000777, emailing support@sportingchanceclinic.com or visit: Sporting Chance (sportingchanceclinic.com)


[1]Social media trolling affects almost a third of elite British sportswomen, BBC Sport survey finds. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/53430686 [2]World Athletics publishes Online Abuse Study covering Tokyo Olympic Games. World Athletics. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/online-abuse-study-athletes-tokyo-olympic-games [3]Australian sportswomen face overwhelming sexism on social media, Plan International analysis reveals. Plan.org. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.plan.org.au/media-centre/australian-sportswomen-face-overwhelming-sexism-on-social-media-plan-international-analysis-reveals/ [4]Kick It Out receive record 1,007 reports for 2022-23 season. Kick It Out. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.kickitout.org/news-media/kick-it-out-receive-record-1007-reports-2022-23-season [5]World Athletics publishes Online Abuse Study covering Tokyo Olympic Games. World Athletics. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://worldathletics.org/news/press-releases/online-abuse-study-athletes-tokyo-olympic-games [6]The State of Online Harrassment. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/personal-experiences-with-online-harassment/ [7]Social media trolling: Sportswomen speak about their experiences. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/53642350 [8]The State of Online Harrassment. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/personal-experiences-with-online-harassment/ [9]Kavanagh et al, (2019). Sporting Women and Social Media: Sexualization, Misogyny, and Gender-Based Violence in Online Spaces. International Journal of Sport Communication. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsc.2019-0079 [10]Litchfield et al, (2016). Virtual Maltreatment: Sexualisation and Social Media Abuse in Sport. Psychology of Women Section Review. https://doi.org/https://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/24389/#:~:text=These%20findings%20demonstrate%20how%20social%20media%20provides%20a,problem%20which%20requires%20further%20consideration%20in%20academic%20literature. [11]The State of Online Harrassment. Pew Research Center. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/personal-experiences-with-online-harassment/ [12]There's No Comparing Male and Female Harassment Online. Time. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://time.com/3305466/male-female-harassment-online/ [13]Australian sportswomen face overwhelming sexism on social media, Plan International analysis reveals. Plan.org. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.plan.org.au/media-centre/australian-sportswomen-face-overwhelming-sexism-on-social-media-plan-international-analysis-reveals/ [14]Social media trolling: Sportswomen speak about their experiences. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/53642350 [15]Team GB badminton player Kirsty Gilmour on living with horrendous social media abuse. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/scotland/65871247 [16]BBC Elite British Sportswomen's Survey results. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/53593459 [17]Renee Hector 'sank into depression' after online abuse following racism case. BBC Sport. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/49345402 [18]Online abuse of women widespread in UK. Amnesty International UK. Retrieved July 14, 2023, from https://www.amnesty.org.uk/online-abuse-women-widespread

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