October 23, 2014

Online Harassment

WASHINGTON (October 22, 2014)—Harassment—from garden-variety name calling to more threatening behavior—is a common part of online life that colors the experiences of many web users.

Fully 73% of American adult internet users have witnessed online harassment and 40% have experienced it themselves, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Online adults who witnessed harassment said they had seen at least one of the following occur to others online:

  • 60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
  • 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
  • 25% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
  • 24% had seen someone being physically threatened
  • 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
  • 18% said they had seen someone be stalked

Internet users who have personally experienced online harassment said they were the target of at least one of the following online:

  • 27% of internet users have been called offensive names
  • 22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
  • 8% have been physically threatened
  • 8% have been stalked
  • 7% have been harassed for a sustained period
  • 6% have been sexually harassed

Half of those who experienced online harassment did not know the person involved in their most recent incident of harassment. Some 38% said a stranger was responsible while 26% said they didn’t know the real identity of the person or people involved.

This is Pew Research Center’s first survey devoted to the subject. The findings are representative of adult internet users in the United States and come from the web portion of an online and mail survey of 3,217 respondents in the American Trends Panel developed by Pew Research. The margin of error for the 2,849 web respondents is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

The survey highlights two distinct, but overlapping categories of online harassment emerge. The first set of experiences is somewhat less severe: it includes name-calling and attempts to embarrass people. It is a layer of annoyance so common that those who see or experience it say they often ignore it.

The second category of harassment targets a smaller segment of the online public, but involves more severe experiences such as being the target of physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking, and sexual harassment.

In broad trends, the data show that men are more likely to experience name-calling and embarrassment, while young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and stalking. Social media is the most common scene of both types of harassment, although men highlight online gaming and comments sections as other spaces they typically encounter harassment. Those who experience less severe forms of harassment report fewer emotional or personal impacts, while those with more severe harassment experiences often report more serious emotional tolls.

Of those who have been harassed online, 55% (or 22% of all internet users) have exclusively experienced the “less severe” kinds of harassment while 45% (or 18% of all internet users) have fallen victim to any of the “more severe” kinds of harassment.

Young adults, those 18-29, are the most likely age group to both witness and experience online harassment. Fully 65% of these young internet users have been the target of online harassment and 92% have witnessed it.

Young women, those 18-24, experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. These figures are significant not only compared with their male peers, but also with women just slightly older, ages 25-29. Additionally, these young women do not escape the high rates of other types of online harassment so common to their age group in general.

Overall, men are somewhat more likely than women to experience at least one of the elements of online harassment, 44% vs. 37%. In terms of specific experiences, men are more likely to encounter name-calling, embarrassment, and physical threats.

“We know from previous research that people see both kindness and cruelty online. To understand these dynamics more fully, we did our first deep dive into online harassment,” said Maeve Duggan, the main author of the Pew Research report. “It was striking to see how different varieties of harassment impacted different groups on different platforms, and the range of reactions online harassment elicited.”

Asked to recall where their most recent experience took place:

  • 66% of internet users who have experienced online harassment said their most recent incident occurred on a social networking site or app
  • 22% mentioned the comments section of a website
  • 16% said online gaming
  • 16% in a personal email account
  • 10% on a discussion site such as reddit
  • 6% on an online dating website or app

Among those who have experienced online harassment, 60% decided to ignore their most recent incident while 40% took steps to respond to it. Those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment took the following steps:

  • 47% of those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment confronted the person online
  • 44% unfriended or blocked the person responsible
  • 22% reported the person responsible to the website or online service
  • 18% discussed the problem online to draw support for themselves
  • 13% changed their username or deleted their profile
  • 10% withdrew from an online forum
  • 8% stopped attending certain offline events or places
  • 5% reported the problem to law enforcement

Regardless of whether a user chose to ignore or respond to the harassment, people were generally satisfied with their outcome. Some 83% of those who ignored it and 75% of those who responded thought their decision was effective at making the situation better.

Asked how upsetting their most recent experience with harassment was, the respondents’ responses ran a spectrum from being quite jarring to being of no real consequence:

  • 14% of those who have experienced online harassment found their most recent incident extremely upsetting
  • 14% found it very upsetting
  • 21% said it was somewhat upsetting
  • 30% reported it was a little upsetting
  • 22% found it not at all upsetting

Women were more likely than men to find their most recent experience with online harassment extremely or very upsetting – 38% of harassed women said so of their most recent experience, compared with 17% of harassed men.

Some 15% of those who have experienced online harassment said it impacted their reputation.

This survey also asked a number of questions aimed to explore the context that informs online harassment. Fully 92% of internet users agreed that the online environment allows people to be more critical of one another, compared with their offline experiences. But a substantial majority, 68%, also agreed that online environments allow them to be more supportive of one another. Some 63% thought online environments allow for more anonymity than in their offline lives.

Respondents were asked whether they thought a series of online platforms were more welcoming toward men, more welcoming toward women, or equally welcoming to both sexes. While most online environments were viewed as equally welcoming to both genders, the starkest results were for online gaming. Some 44% of respondents felt the platform was more welcoming toward men.