Online harassment is widespread, study says, and concern is growing

online harassment
IgorStevanovic/123RF
From creating intensely local communities to fostering interactions that span the globe, the internet is one of the most remarkable human achievements in terms of bringing people together. Unfortunately, online harassment can tarnish the experience — and some new research indicates it happens way too often.

Pew Research recently completed a study that looked at many forms of harassment to ascertain exactly how often it occurs. According to the data, harassment is so common that a clear majority of American internet users have witnessed it, while a significant percentage have experienced it themselves.

The research organization looked at a variety of different types of harassment. It considered everything from simple name-calling to sexual harassment and stalking to actual physical threats. Harassment was further defined according to severity, from “less severe” to “more severe,” and the study considered the impact on victims.

pew research online harassment overview

The study’s major conclusions are that different demographic groups are subject to different kinds of harassment — and to varying degrees. For example, young adults ages 18-29 are the most likely overall to experience online harassment, with 67 percent being targeted by at least one element.

pew research online harassment by age group

Young women ages 18-24 are the most likely to be sexually harassed online, at 20 percent, compared to men at six percent. This demographic is also subject to the same levels of physical threats and sustained harassment as other demographics. Overall, however, all groups have seen an increase in harassment and when considering all types, both men and women have suffered similar rates.

pew research online harassment by sex

In terms of the reasons why harassment occurs, different personal identity traits form the basis of a significant amount of harassment. Political views rank at the top at 14 percent of Americans reporting that they’ve been targeted with harassment for that reason, followed by physical appearance at nine percent. Gender and race are tied for third place at eight percent, while religion, sexual orientation, occupation, and identity round things out.

pew research online harassment pi 2017

By far, social networking sites and apps are where harassment is most likely to occur, with 58 percent of respondents saying they had experienced harassment when engaging in social media such as Twitter. Website comment sections were the next most common at 23 percent, followed by online gaming, personal email, discussion sites like Reddit, and online dating sites and apps.

In an apparent change from an earlier Pew Research study conducted in 2014, online harassment appears to be having more of an impact on internet users. Today, online harassment is considered by 54 percent of men and 70 percent of women to be a “major problem,” and 45 percent who have suffered from severe harassment indicate that it has caused them mental/emotional stress. Women are more likely than men to call for stronger laws against online harassment (36 percent versus 24 percent) and to think that law enforcement does not take online harassment seriously enough (46 percent versus 39 percent).

pew research online harassment by experience

The Pew Research study goes into considerable detail regarding online harassment and represents an important measure of its significance. The bottom line, which might come as no surprise to the typical internet user, is that online harassment is an all-too-common occurrence that gives some Americans pause when considering whether or not to participate in various online communities.

Update: We inadvertently referenced an older Pew Research study in our original version of this story. We have revised to reflect the results of the most recent research.

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