What is online life like for many United States residents? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center provides a good view. 41 percent of adults surveyed have personally experienced online harassment. Even more, 66 percent, witnessed online harassment directed at others.
The types of online harassment behaviors vary from the less severe (e.g., offensive name calling, efforts to embarrass someone) to the more severe (e.g., physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment, stalking.) 18 percent of survey participants -- nearly one out of every fiver persons -- reported that they had experienced severe behaviors.
Americans reported that social networking sites are the most common locations for online harassment experiences. Of the 41 percent of survey participants who personally experienced online harassment, most of those (82 percent) cited a single site and 58 percent cited "social media."
The reasons vary. 14 percent of survey respondents reported they had been harassed online specifically because of their politics; 9 percent reported that they were targeted due to their physical appearance; e percent said they were targeted due to their race or ethnicity; and 8 percent said they were targeted due to their gender. 5 percent said they were targeted due their religion, and 3 percent said they were targeted due to their sexual orientation.
Some groups experience online harassment more than others. Pew found that younger adults, under age 30, are more likely to experience severe forms of online harassment. Similarly, younger adults are also more likely to witness online harassment targeting others. Pew also found:
"... one-in-four blacks say they have been targeted with harassment online because of their race or ethnicity, as have one-in-ten Hispanics. The share among whites is lower (3%). Similarly, women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender (11% vs. 5%). Men, however, are around twice as likely as women to say they have experienced harassment online as a result of their political views (19% vs. 10%). Similar shares of Democrats and Republicans say they have been harassed online..."
The impacts upon victims vary, too:
"... ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety. At the same time, harassment does not have to be experienced directly to leave an impact. Around one-quarter of Americans (27%) say they have decided not to post something online after witnessing the harassment of others, while more than one-in-ten (13%) say they have stopped using an online service after witnessing other users engage in harassing behaviors..."
And, attitudes vary by gender. See the table on the right. More women than men consider online harassment a "major problem," and men prioritize free speech over online safety while women prioritize safety first. And, 83 percent of young women (e.g., ages 18 - 29) viewed online harassment as a major problem. Perhaps most importantly, persons who have "faced severe forms of online harassment differ in experiences, reactions, and attitudes."
Pew Research also found that persons who experience severe forms of online harassment, "are more likely to be targeted for personal characteristics and to face offline consequences." So, what happens online doesn't necessarily stay online.
The perpetrators vary, too. Of the 41 percent of survey participants who personally experienced online harassment, 34 percent said the perpetrator was a stranger, and 31 percent said they didn't know the perpetrator's real identity. Also, 26 percent said the perpetrator was an acquaintance, followed by friend (18 percent), family member, (11 percent), former romantic partner (7 percent), and coworker (5 percent).
Pew Research found that the number of Americans who experienced online harassment has increased slightly from 35 percent during a 2014 survey. Pew Research Center surveyed 4,248 U.S. adults during January 9 - 23, 2017.
62 percent of survey participants view online harassment as a major problem. 5 percent do not consider it a problem at all. People who have experienced severe forms of online harassment said that they have already taken action. Those actions include a mix: a) set up or adjust privacy settings for their profiles in online services, b) reported offensive content to the online service, c) responded directly to the harasser, d) offered support to others targeted, e) changed information in their online profiles, and f) stopped using specific online services.
Views vary about which entities bear responsibility for solutions. 79 percent of survey respondents said that online services have a duty to intervene when harassment occurs on their service. 35 percent believe that better policies and tools from online services are the best way to address online harassment.
Meanwhile, 60 said that bystanders who witness online harassment "should play a major role in addressing this issue," and 15 percent view peer pressure as an effective solution. 49 said law enforcement should play a major role in addressing online harassment, while 31 said stronger laws are needed. Perhaps most troubling:
"... a sizable proportion of Americans (43%) say that law enforcement currently does not take online harassment incidents seriously enough."
Among persons who have experienced severe forms of online harassment, 55 percent said that law enforcement does not take the incidents seriously enough. Compare that statistic with this: nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of young men (ages 18 - 29) feel that offensive online content is taken too seriously.
And Americans are highly divided about how to balance safety concerns versus free:
"When asked how they would prioritize these competing interests, 45% of Americans say it is more important to let people speak their minds freely online; a slightly larger share (53%) feels that it is more important for people to feel welcome and safe online.
Americans are also relatively divided on just how seriously offensive content online should be treated. Some 43% of Americans say that offensive speech online is too often excused as not being a big deal, but a larger share (56%) feel that many people take offensive content online too seriously."
With such divergent views, one wonders if the problem of online harassment can be easily solved. What are your opinions about online harassment?