Four our of ten in U.S. have personally been harassed online

WASHINGTON, D.C.
July 11, 2017 8:30am
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•  Two out of three have seen it happen to others

•  “The issue of online harassment is more complicated than first meets the eye”


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Online harassment is a common feature of life online for many adults, with substantial portions of the public both experiencing and witnessing harassing behaviors online, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

It finds that 41 percent of Americans have personally experienced online harassment and 66 percent have witnessed the online harassment of others.

Adults who have personally experienced online harassment say they have been the target of at least one of the following behaviors online:

• Offensive name-calling (27 percent of Americans say this has ever happened to them)

• Purposeful efforts to embarrass them (22 percent)

• Physical threats (10 percent)

• Stalking (7 percent)

• Harassment over a sustained period of time (7 percent)

• Sexual harassment (6 percent)

While name-calling and embarrassment are the most common forms of online harassment, 18 percent of adults have experienced more severe forms of online harassment – which includes physical threats, stalking, harassment over a sustained period of time, or sexual harassment, the Pew report says.

Americans who have experienced these severe forms of harassment tend to report a number of consequences, ranging from mental and emotional stress to proactive steps to protect their privacy.

Building on the Pew Center’s 2014 report on the topic, the new survey offers several first-time findings.

→ Overall, 62 percent of Americans consider online harassment a major problem, and many look to online companies and platforms for solutions.

→ A plurality assigns primary responsibility to these services: More than a third of adults (35 percent) say better policies and tools from online companies are the most effective way to address online harassment, and 79 percent believe online services have a responsibility to step in when harassing behavior occurs on their platforms.

→ Meanwhile, many Americans see room for law enforcement to get more involved. Some 43 percent do not think law enforcement currently takes incidents of online harassment seriously enough, and 49 percent say law enforcement should play a “major role” in addressing the issue.

Americans Divided Between Free Speech and Safety Online

At the same time, Americans are divided on the issues that underlie online harassment, such as the appropriate balance between free speech and online safety, according to the Pew report.

When asked how they would prioritize these interests, 45 percent of Americans say it is more important to let people speak their minds freely online, while a larger share (53 percent) thinks it is more important for people to feel welcome and safe online.

Similarly, a modest majority (56 percent) feels that many people take offensive content online too seriously, while 43 percent say this type of content is too often excused as not a big deal.

“The issue of online harassment is more complicated than first meets the eye,” says Maeve Duggan, author of the report and research associate at Pew Research Center. “Americans simultaneously want concrete solutions and safe spaces online, but they’re protective of free expression. And given the spectrum of documented experiences with online harassment – from the mild to the severe – people sense there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy.”

Online harassment is particularly prevalent among young people, says the report. Two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-olds (67 percent) have experienced any form of online harassment, compared with one-third of adults ages 30 and older. And while men are somewhat more likely than women to experience online harassment overall (44 percent vs. 37 percent), women – and particularly young women – are more likely to be the targets of sexualized forms of online abuse. Two-in-ten women ages 18 to 29 (21 percent) say they have been sexually harassed online, and just over half (53 percent) have been sent explicit images they did not ask for.

Reactions and attitudes toward online harassment also vary significantly by gender: Women are more likely than men to identify online harassment as a major problem, to place a high priority on safe spaces online, and to believe that online harassment is too often excused as being not a big deal, the Pew report says.

Online harassment often centers on personal traits or characteristics. Some 14 percent of Americans say they have been harassed online because of their political views, while around one-in-ten have been targeted for their physical appearance (9 percent), race or ethnicity (8 percent) or gender (8 percent).

Racially motivated harassment is most common among blacks and Hispanics, and women are especially likely to encounter harassment as a result of their gender. Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to say they have been targeted because of their political views.

Social media is the most common venue for online harassment, says the Pew report. Nearly six-in-ten online harassment targets (58 percent) say their most recent incident occurred on a social media platform.

Americans also think anonymity plays a key role in facilitating harassing behavior. Among those who have personally experienced online harassment, 54 percent say their most recent incident involved either a stranger and/or someone whose real identity they did not know. And 89 percent of Americans say that the ability to post anonymously online enables people to be cruel or harass one another.

About the research

Data for the report are drawn from a wave of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, conducted Jan. 9-23, 2017, among 4,248 respondents. The margin of sampling error for the full sample of respondents is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

The American Trends Panel is a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys. Panelists participate via monthly self-administered web surveys. Panelists who do not have internet access are provided with a tablet and wireless internet connection. The panel is managed by Abt SRBI.


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