We Can Build Healthy Social Norms Online

By Molly Kurnit, CDC

The past 13 months have been unique for lots of reasons, including a shift to carrying out major parts of our lives online. Whenever possible, we are working remotely, socializing virtually, and ordering our pizzas from our mobile devices. But some things didn’t change. Sexual violence is still occurring, and technology is still used to facilitate that violence.

Sexual violence can occur in person, online, or through technology. Certain online behaviors are clearly abusive, like “Zoom-bombing” nudes into a classroom, while there are other behaviors, like sending someone an unwanted sexual message on a dating app, that may seem less harmful. Sexting (the sending or receiving of sexual words, pictures, or videos via technology, typically a mobile phone) in the context of a romantic relationship may be consensual; however, threatening to share sexts to compromise a current or former partner is coercive and harmful. The truth is that these behaviors are influenced by the same attitudes and beliefs that lead to sexual violence, such as social norms that condone violence, support toxic masculinity, degrade and sexualize women, and further other forms of oppression.

Social norms refer to values, beliefs, attitudes, and/or behaviors shared by a group of people. They are often based on what people perceive to be normal, typical, or appropriate. Social norms can function as unspoken rules or guidelines for how people behave and for how people are expected to behave. Social norms can affect nearly any aspect of our lives. They contribute to our clothing choices, how we speak, our music preferences, and our beliefs about certain social issues. They can also affect our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to violence. The way we react to violence may be based on what we see other people do or how we think other people would act, based on what we believe is normal or appropriate.

Changing social norms that accept or allow indifference to violence is necessary to prevent sexual violence, both IRL and URL. In fact, promoting social norms that protect against violence is one of the evidence-based strategies in CDC’s STOP SV: A Technical Package to Prevent Sexual Violence.

The social norms approach draws heavily on techniques from social marketing and health communications. People and organizations create social norms campaigns to deliver messages designed to correct misperceptions, change dangerous social norms, or promote healthy social norms.

When using a social norms approach, instead of telling people exactly what to do, the idea is to provide accurate information about attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that will allow them to adopt new, healthier social norms. Digital social norms campaigns aim to make online spaces safer for everyone by making it clear that violence is not the norm and that harassment is not acceptable. Ready to start? VetoViolence has got you covered! Check out these six steps for creating a social norms campaign.



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