Online Harassment Isn’t Growing—But It’s Getting More Severe
4 in 10 Americans say they’ve experienced abuse while online, with a larger share facing sexual harassment and stalking
Despite a steady rise in internet users and a near constant influx of new platforms for digital connection, the percentage of Americans who report experiencing online harassment hasn’t increased in recent years.
But what has changed is the severity of that abuse.
A nationally representative survey of more than 10,000 U.S. adults conducted online in September 2020 by the Pew Research Center found that 41% of Americans have personally experienced some form of online harassment in at least one of six ways: offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, or sexual harassment.
That’s about the same percentage as when the Center last surveyed on the subject in 2017, but the new data shows that reports of the more severe actions, such as stalking and sexual harassment, are growing. “Online harassment overall may be not be growing, but it’s becoming a more intense issue,” says Emily Vogels, a research associate at the Center who led the survey. “In each category of more severe behaviors—physical threats, stalking, sustained harassment, and sexual harassment—the percentage of people who reported ever having each of these experiences either doubled or nearly doubled since we first asked about this topic in 2014.”
The Center’s first survey on this issue came in 2014, on the heels of Gamergate, a year-long harassment campaign conducted across online platforms such as 4chan and Reddit targeting several women in the videogame industry. After the 2017 follow-up survey, Center researchers sought to understand how online harassment had evolved after the rise of the Me Too movement and in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
The latest findings show that roughly two-thirds of adults under 30 have experienced abuse online, with about half of young adults surveyed having experienced severe harassment. Seven in 10 lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults have experienced online abuse, with 51% targeted for more severe forms of abuse. Overall, men are somewhat more likely than women to say they have experienced any form of harassment online (43% versus 38%), but similar shares of men and women have faced more severe forms of online abuse.
And the study showed that women who experienced online harassment were more than twice as likely as men to say it was upsetting.
For Jessica Vitak, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and a former research intern with the Pew Internet Project, this data tracks with the trends she sees in her work: “In my research, looking primarily at women under 30, a significant percentage say they’ve experienced severe online harassment. The most disheartening thing I’ve found is that many women felt like being harassed online was just a part of being a woman online, because the behavior has been normalized.”
Among women who have been harassed online, 47% cited gender as the reason, while 42% said it was due to politics. And, in fact, as partisan antipathy has grown in recent years, so has the number of people citing their political beliefs as the primary reason for being harassed. In 2017, 35% of people who experienced online harassment said it was due to their political beliefs. In 2020, that number had jumped 15 percentage points, with fully half of all online harassment targets citing politics as the reason for the abuse. And 56% of White targets said their online harassment was for their political views.
But of these same White targets, only 17% said they were harassed due to their race or ethnicity—a figure that balloons to 54% of Black online harassment targets and 47% of Hispanic online harassment targets.
The constant introduction of new platforms and online spaces has created more spaces for people to be harassed. According to the Pew study, 41% said their most recent online harassment spanned at least two venues, including social media sites, online forums, email, texting apps, gaming sites, and dating apps.
Three-quarters of individuals who were harassed said their most recent incident occurred on social media platforms, which facilitate anonymous interactions. “There’s always this concern on social media that people are going to act in ways they wouldn’t if it was tied to their real identity—with more aggressive and harassing language, for example,” says Vitak. “This is what researchers call the online disinhibition effect.”
When asked how they felt social media companies were addressing online harassment, survey respondents were critical.
“The majority of people feel like social media companies aren’t doing a great job of handling online harassment,” says Vogels. “This is not to say that people think those who are being harassed should be able to sue—in fact, only a third of people say that targets of harassment should be able to sue the platform. Instead they see a variety of possible solutions as very effective, including banning users who harass others and making individuals reveal their real identities to sign up for social media accounts.”
In general, Black adults and women are more optimistic about the efficacy of tactics used by companies to address harassment than White adults and men, respectively. Around 6 in 10 Black adults believe social media companies proactively deleting harassing posts would be a very effective way to combat harassment, compared with only 36% of White respondents. Women are more likely than men to see temporary bans, permanent bans, proactive deletion of posts, and criminal charges as very effective.
Having social media platforms take steps to reduce harassment and to mitigate the negative consequences is one part of the solution, says Vitak. The addition of filters that remove incendiary language from a person’s feed, “nudging behaviors” that make users pause before posting by employing pop-ups that encourage positive actions, and other technological improvements could help—but they’re just Band-Aids.
“We’re never going to be fully successful in stopping ‘bad’ behaviors online until it’s addressed as part of early education and people understand there are real-world, offline consequences to our actions online,” Vitak says. “We need to teach people at a young age what it means to be a good digital citizen.”
Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Trust.
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