October 30, 2014

5 facts about online harassment

Last week, Pew Research Center released its first in-depth study of online harassment among American adults, which examined the prevalence of harassment online, its various forms, where it occurs, and how people respond. The topic has received a good deal of attention over the past year, first from journalists documenting their experiences with hostility online, then to the aftermath of hacked celebrity photos, and most recently the controversy surrounding #Gamergate.

Online harassment presents some challenges to researchers, policy-makers, law enforcement, and advocates who urge more attention to the issue. For instance, there is little consensus on the definition of online harassment (legal or otherwise), as well as who should be responsible for monitoring bad behavior online. The U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not hold websites responsible for content posted by users, leaving technology companies to create and enforce their own community standards. Our research focused on the broad landscape of online harassment – from mild instances to severe problems.

Here are some of our key findings:

1 Online Harassment40% of internet users have personally experienced online harassment. We defined online harassment as having had at least one of six incidents personally occur to someone: name-calling, efforts to be purposefully embarrassed, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, sexual harassment, and stalking. (Respondents were separately asked if they had witnessed any of these behaviors occur to others online; 73% said they had). Online harassment fell into two distinct, but frequently overlapping, categories of severity – “less severe” harassment was composed of name-calling and embarrassment; 22% of internet users exclusively experienced this kind of harassment. Another 18% of internet users experienced any of the “more severe” types of harassment, including physical threats, sustained harassment, stalking, and sexual harassment.

2 Young adults are the most likely demographic group to experience harassment online. Some 65% of internet users ages 18-29 have experienced some type of online harassment. The youngest internet users, those ages 18-24, are not only more likely to say they experience online harassment overall (70% say they’ve been victim of at least one type) but also significantly more likely to say they are targets of some of the more severe kinds of harassment like physical threats (24%), sexual harassment (19%), and harassment over a sustained period of time (17%).

3 Men and women have different experiences with online harassment. Online men are more likely to experience at least one of the six types of harassment we queried – 44% have had some sort of harassment experience compared with 37% of online women. Men are somewhat more likely to experience certain “less severe” kinds of harassment like name-calling and embarrassment. They are also more likely to receive physical threats online.

Women – and particularly young women – are more likely to experience certain types of “more severe” harassment, such as stalking and sexual harassment. Among female internet users 18-24, 26% say they have been stalked online and 25% have been sexually harassed. This is significant not only to their male counterparts of the same age, but also to women just a few years older, 25-29. In addition, young women do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.

4 Half of those harassed online do not know who is behind it. When asked who was responsible for their most recent incident with online harassment, 38% said it was a stranger and 26% said they didn’t know the real identity of the person. Among known perpetrators, acquaintances and friends were the most common types cited, 24% and 23%, respectively.

5 Social media was most frequently cited as the scene of online harassment. When asked to think of where their most recent incident with online harassment occurred, 66% of those who have been harassed cited social media websites and apps. Some 22% noted the comments section of a website, while 16% each noted online gaming or personal email accounts. Some 10% said it happened on a discussion site like reddit, while just 6% noted online dating sites and apps.

Topics: Social Media, Online Privacy and Safety

  1. Photo of Maeve Duggan

    is a research associate focusing on internet and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. Michelle Chan1 year ago

    This is why I never use MY photo or real name online. I don’t live my life on the internet, I live it out in the real world. The real world is sick enough without online harassers stirring the pot. Shame when you can’t even use Twitter. And unkind, biased Celebrities harass people with their vicious verbal “assaults” too. They’re not always the victim. Sometimes they are the aggressor.

  2. Mona2 years ago

    social network is getting so crazy, I also read one article where they put the screenshot of facebook and google plus where people share girls number. So pathetic! You can also check that article here if you wanna: techgrapple.com/social-network-h…

  3. Sandra Orely3 years ago

    Since men are expected to pursue women, it seems inevitable that some will mess up and that this will be perceived as stalking. SInce women generally aren’t expected to pursue men, it makes sense why men would be much less likely to be stalked or sexually harassed. That the rates are so similar in every other category seems to demonstrate this really isn’t a gender issue, but one of our toxic internet culture.

  4. Michael3 years ago

    I was accused of harassment after telling someone that they were wrong in their assertion. She said I called her ignorant, I was rude, hostile and called her friends liars.

    I said I would apologize if she could provide me with a copies of my offensive sentences so I could see where I did that. That made her even angrier, at which point she stated I was a complete jerk and to leave her alone. All I had ever done was respond to comments she sent to me, and question her assertions. She said my questioning of her assertions meant I was demeaning her, that nobody ever questions her, she works in a hospital, and she knows best.

    It was one of the most bizarre online exchanges I’d ever had. It was as if we were talking about two completely different experiences, except it was just one, and we could both see it and both refer back to the previous comments and prove exactly what was said. Every time I asked her to show me where I said something terribly obnoxious she accused me of writing she became even more upset, angry, defensive and accusatory.

    It was when she finally screamed (all caps and multiple exclamation points) to leave her alone (after she responded to a comment I made to someone else, I only ever replied to her comments to me) that I realized she was likely going through some personal problems. She wasn’t responding rationally and wasn’t reading my replies rationally or even reading them as any rational person would read them. I reread them all just to be sure, and didn’t see how they could be read in any way that she was reading them.

    I hope she’s getting help.

    As for the study, online sexual harassment is more severe than physical threats?

    How are the harassment types categorized? This would seem to me to be a rather subjective exercise. I would think if you don’t know who’s harassing you most of the time, it would depend on the person receiving the threat. It would also depend on where I live. If in the USA and someone threatens to shoot me, I’d be concerned, especially if I use my real name (which I usually do). Much less so if I live in Japan, Australia, or the UK where firearm deaths are much less common.

    On the other hand sexual harassment doesn’t bother me, nor do insults about my looks or body. I’ve lived with my body for a long time. It’s doing all sorts of strange things I never expected (or at least wanted) it to do. The person bothering me can look forward to the same sorts of things if it isn’t already happening to him/her. We’re all worm food in the end, and as the book says, everybody poops. I’m pretty normal, I don’t understand others getting bent out of shape over natural bodily functions. Not that I want to hear about them.

    I’ve been on the internet a long time, before there really was an internet and it was just email and groups, and back then there was very little harassment, but of course there were jerks. Jerks who seem to feel it’s their task in life to embarrass and belittle others.

    If there is one truth to be told, it’s that humans are the strangest of all animals on earth.

    1. Adam Valerius2 years ago

      I can empathize with you. I have just been accused of harassment by someone who keeps misunderstanding. I am seeking comfort in other autism-related communities on Google+ in which he also participates. I have asked the operators of the other communities to disallow him from + mentioning me so that I am not made to look bad. On social media we use our real names so when harassment occurs we DO know whodunnit but we may not know WHERE they are.

  5. Hal Burton3 years ago

    I fail to see how one can be “harassed” by the fictitious typing of an invisible hand. All my devices have a delete button for a reason.

    1. Adam Valerius2 years ago

      My devices have delete buttons too, and I use them whenever my posts/comments get no response after several days, negative responses, or I regret having made the post.