For those who have experienced online harassment, the fallout can range from insignificant to an ongoing trauma. This survey examined not only the immediate after-effects of harassment, but also the possibility that these effects linger.
Asked how upsetting they found their most recent experience with harassment, the responses were varied:
- 14% of those who have experienced online harassment found their most recent incident extremely upsetting
- 14% found it very upsetting
- 21% found it somewhat upsetting
- 30% found it a little upsetting
- 22% found it not at all upsetting
Women who have been harassed online were more than twice as likely as men to find their most recent experience with online harassment “extremely” or “very” upsetting — 38% of harassed women say that their most recent experience falls into this category, compared with 17% of harassed men. On the other hand, 31% of men said that their most recent experience with harassment was “not at all” upsetting, compared with just 12% of women.
As was the case with their responses to incidents of harassment online, people who have experienced more severe forms of harassment in the past are particularly likely to indicate that their most recent experience had a pronounced negative impact. (Again, we do not know precisely what type of behavior provoked this emotional response in their most recent exposure to harassment online.) Some 37% of those who have experienced severe forms of harassment in the past (such as physical threats, stalking, and sustained or sexual harassment) found their most recent experience with online harassment “very” or “extremely” upsetting.
To be sure, many people who are exposed to “less severe” forms of harassment like name-calling or embarrassment report a strong emotional impact, although this effect tends to be more muted. Among those who have only experienced these more moderate forms of harassment (but not the more severe versions noted above), 19% indicate that their most recent interaction was “very” or “extremely” upsetting to them.
When gender and severe harassment combine, the results are especially stark. Although men and women are equally likely overall to have experienced “severe” harassment in the past (i.e., sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time), they differ in how upset their most recent experience with online harassment made them.
Some 51% of women who have ever experienced severe harassment online found their most recent incident “extremely” or “very” upsetting. (Again, we do not know the particular circumstances of respondents’ most recent incident.) This is a significant difference compared with the 23% of men with severe experiences who similarly felt “extremely” or “very” upset about their most recent incident. It is also significant to the 27% of women and 13% of men who have only experienced name-calling and embarrassment but were still “extremely” or “very” about their most recent encounter. That is to say, women with severe harassment experiences are set apart in their reactions to their most recent harassment.
The opposite trend is also true. Men who have only experienced “less severe” types of harassment are particularly likely to find their most recent incident with harassment “a little” or “not at all” upsetting. Fully 69% said so, compared with 49% of their female counterparts. When compared with those with “severe” past experiences, 57% of men and 26% of women found their most recent incident “a little” or “not at all” upsetting.
Those who have experienced online harassment were asked when their most recent incident occurred. Some 8% said it was still occurring now, 39% said it happened within the past year, and 53% said it occurred more than a year ago.
Open-end responses: Severe harassment
The open-end responses describing more severe types of harassment like sexual harassment, stalking, and physical threats included especially graphic descriptions and strong sentiments. Responses often mentioned the great lengths people went through to end the harassment, and identified the gender of the respondent. These trends were atypical of less severe harassment stories.
“Had to change my profile and my name on it to hide because of the bullying. Always being attacked online, called names, told I should be dead, why don’t I just die, I don’t deserve to breathe, I take up too much space. I had guys send me pics of their penis telling me I was a no good w***e and that that is what I deserve and they are going to stick it to me. The police wouldn’t help they just laughed and told me to take him up on it.”
“I was told that someone should rape me which was horrific since it’s one of the things I fear most.”
“Online commenters told me I was ‘asking to be raped,’ that maybe I made all of this up, and that my parents were to blame because they raised a r*****.”
“I was on a website and stated my opinion in a discussion. I was sexually harassed and physically threatened.”
“Wymen don’t internet. Show me ur b**bz 4 proof”
“A man I went to high school with was sending me inappropriate photos and comments of a sexual nature.”
“I was threatened and told that if I stopped communicating with this man he would find me and rape me.”
“Dating site guys would ask for vulgar pleasures. When turned down I was called offensive names.”
“Men on online dating sites can become belligerent when they feel rejected.”
“If I post something and they know I’m a woman, people automatically think I’m flighty or slutty.”
“Being sexually harassed, unfortunately, seems like it is just part of being a female. I do not think I have had an entire day without at least one comment/gesture (in person or online) that could be called sexual harassment. I have had people attempt to embarrass me…but I do not embarrass easily.”
“An unknown person used the search function to find me on every social media site, proceeding to harass me continually…until I called the police, after which he disappeared.”
“A person who was rejected personally followed me online and off, contacted people I knew, and let me know he knew what I was doing, where I was going and with whom I was associating. I let him know, in the strongest terms, to cut it out. But Neanderthal being Neanderthal, he really didn’t fully stop until another male came into the picture and THEN this ‘person’ backed off. Because male territory he understands. Disgusting.”
“I had a former partner continually trying to contact me after I broke things off. When he couldn’t reach me, he started having friends message me. Eventually I changed my information and converted all my posts to private.”
“Someone I know kept on saying they wanted to fight me and sending me messages until I blocked them it didn’t stop.”
“I had a woman stalk me, which began online and continued in the real world, ending in the courtroom.”
“Threatening to harm my pets and myself and my personal property. Cops were no help!”
“Guy said he was going to ‘slap me silly’.”
“I am a woman who identifies as a feminist. Whenever I try to educate about my beliefs others attack me. Sexual harassment is something that happens on a regular basis.”
Reputation and Online Harassment
A share of the victims feels some longer-term damage from their experiences.
Online harassment can have long-term effects. In a time when everyone from future employers to future romantic partners can potentially find personal information on others with a simple Google search, online harassment can cast a long shadow.
The majority, 85%, of internet users who have been the target of online harassment have not had an experience that hurt their reputation. Another 15%, however, do feel that their reputation was damaged by their experience with online harassment.
Again, there were differences based on the severity of online harassment that occurred. Those who experienced certain types of severe harassment—namely, physical threats and sustained harassment – were more likely to feel their reputation had been hurt. Some 34% of those who have experienced sustained harassment and 31% of those who have been physically threatened said their reputation had been hurt. Conversely, those who experienced more benign types of harassment like name-calling and embarrassment were more likely to feel their reputation had not been damaged—82% and 80%, respectively.
Those who found their most recent experience with online harassment “extremely” or “very” upsetting were more likely than those who found it “a little” or “not at all” upsetting to say they have had an experience with online harassment that hurt their reputation. A quarter, 26%, of those who found it extremely or very upsetting said their reputation has been hurt by online harassment, compared with just 10% of those who only found their harassment a little or not at all upsetting.
Open-end responses: Professional settings
In the open-end responses, many comments about reputation were work-related or criticized professional abilities.
“I met a guy in a work environment, and he called me after a work event. I then got harassing phone calls from a woman telling me to leave him alone, and she even stalked me on Facebook. It was horrifying. A police officer friend of mine contacted her and him for me; clearly a dispute on their end, but it was terrifying. I was worried about my work reputation as well as my personal reputation.”
“Attacks through mass emails and comments on blogs on my personal and professional character, leading to extended professional review when applying for jobs. Ultimately unfounded/libelous criticisms that delayed employment opportunities.”
“A slight mistake in a message was twisted and re-sent out to my organization.”
“Over a period of years, there is a person who posts angry messages about my business and who tries to contact me. I therefore quit Facebook and Social Media for the last few years.”
“Someone made a public post on Facebook criticizing my job performance.”
“I was a guest on a Facebook page for union employees. One employee did not want me on page (I was in management), continued to make snide remarks until I removed myself from the page (in an effort not to detract from the group).”