September 21, 2023 - 7:00am

A recent survey of 2000 young people aged 13-18 has revealed several worrying aspects of teenage behaviour. More than a quarter polled said they feel anxious all or most of the time. A fifth of girls said they had received unwanted nude images or videos from a peer, while a third of respondents said that comparing themselves to others on social media negatively affected their mood.

One of the most interesting insights from the survey was actually about physical rather than online safety. Of the girls surveyed, 44% said they did not feel safe while walking alone on the street, compared to 24% of boys. A quarter of girls said that they had experienced sexual harassment in some form, but this still suggests that a further 20% of girls feel threatened regardless. This fear only gets worse as girls get older: another study found that one in two women feel unsafe walking alone in the dark in a quiet street or busy public place (compared to one in seven men), while four in five women feel unsafe walking alone in the dark in a park or other open space (compared to two in five men).

Unfortunately, however, this perceived danger does not marry with reality. Men and teenage boys are almost twice as likely to be the victims of violent crime: in 2020/21, 70% of homicide victims were male, while over half of female victims were killed by their partner or ex-partner. In 2022 there were 106 murders in London; 25 of the victims were female, and almost all of them were killed at home by someone they knew. So why are women and girls still so scared on the street?

There are many potential reasons for this paranoia. True crime, with all its grisly stories of abduction, rape and torture, may be partly responsible for this hypervigilance. True crime audiences are about 73% female, and many posit that the genre’s popularity is because women use it as an educational tool, a way of detecting potential abusers and avoiding dangerous situations. The hosts of true crime podcast My Favourite Murder even wrote a book called Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: A Definitive How-To Guide. 

Yet by exposing ourselves to the most extreme, brutal, and — crucially — rare examples, we lose sight of the fact that murder rates have been falling every year since the 1990s, and serial killers make up less than 1% of murderers. We also forget that most murder victims are not white, young, pretty women.

Nonetheless, everywhere women and young girls are told that they have reasons to fear men. You can’t ride on the tube in London these days without seeing an advert warning against sexual harassment, while on both sides of the pond there are frightening stories about “rape culture” on university and college campuses. Then there are TikTok influencers uploading videos telling women and girls how to hold keys between their fingers most effectively, or why they shouldn’t walk with headphones in. There’s even a trend where content creators give users fake phone conversations to play if they feel unsafe in an Uber. 

Clearly these videos are meant to empower users, and we should educate people on how to manage potentially risky situations, but at what point does “safety first” become scare-mongering? At what point do we remind people that, although it’s good to be prepared, most people want to help you, not harm you? If we don’t, we risk allowing young people, and in particular girls, to become even more anxious than they already are.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.