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Q&A: What we’ve learned about online harassment

Pew Research Center has been studying online harassment for several years now. A new report on Americans’ experiences with and attitudes toward online harassment finds that 41% of U.S. adults have personally experienced some form of online harassment – and the severity of the harassment has increased since we last studied it in 2017.

We spoke with Emily Vogels, a research associate at the Center focusing on internet and technology research, about the new findings. The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

One of the big takeaways from this report – and, to me, the biggest surprise – is that, while the overall number of people facing online harassment seems to be more or less stable, the nature of the harassment has changed over time. What are some of the most significant ways in which online harassment has worsened since we first started studying it?

Emily Vogels, research associate at Pew Research Center
Emily Vogels, research associate at Pew Research Center

While the overall number of those facing at least one of the six problems we ask about hasn’t changed, this survey finds that the level of harassment is increasing in two key ways: People are more likely to have encountered multiple forms of harassment online, and severe encounters have become more common.

When the Center began studying online harassment in 2014, we found that 35% of American adults had experienced it. That grew to 41% in 2017 and remains the same in the new survey. But the shares who have ever experienced more severe forms of harassment – such as physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment or sustained harassment – or multiple forms of harassing behaviors online have both risen substantially in the past three years. This is not the pattern we saw in prior surveys. There has been a markedly steeper rise in these measures since 2017, compared with the change between our 2014 and 2017 studies.

The shares who have ever experienced more severe forms of harassment or multiple forms of harassing behaviors online have both risen substantially in the past three years.

Also, when we ask people about their most recent harassment experience, they’re more likely than in the past to include these more severe behaviors and involve multiple forms of harassment. And as of 2020, 41% of online harassment targets say their most recent experience spanned multiple locations online – for example, a person being harassed on social media and by text message.

Does this suggest that online harassment is, to some extent, becoming “normalized”?

It is commonplace. Roughly four-in-ten American adults say they’ve personally experienced harassment online. These numbers are more staggering when we look at adults under 30 – 64% of them say they’ve faced such issues online and 48% say they’ve experienced at least one of the more severe types of harassment. In addition, previous work by the Center found that a majority of adults overall have witnessed others being harassed online.

Even when online harassment hasn’t been the focus of our research, we have seen this online incivility play a role in people’s perceptions and experiences of other online phenomena, such as online dating, political discussions on social media and social media in general.

The Center’s past research on harassment has shown there are some demographic differences in the kinds of problems people face online. What did this survey show in particular about men, women and harassment?

Men are slightly more likely than women to encounter at least one of the six types of online harassment we asked about, but there are notable differences in the types of harassment they encounter. Men are more likely than women to be called an offensive name or be physically threatened. Women are about three times as likely as men to face sexual harassment online, and younger women are even more likely to experience this type of abuse.

Another difference in the new survey is that sexual harassment of women has doubled in the past three years, while the rate of sexual harassment among men is largely the same as in 2017. Women who have been the target of online harassment also report finding their most recent harassment experiences to be more upsetting than their male counterparts.

There are also differences in where men and women encountered harassment online in their most recent experience. Social media sites are the most common location regardless of gender, but a larger share of women who have been harassed say their most recent incident was on social media, compared with men who have been targeted. Men targeted in online harassment are more likely than women to have been harassed while online gaming or while using an online forum or discussion site.

Beyond personal experiences, men and women express different attitudes about online harassment, with women more likely to say it’s a major problem. And prior Center work finds that a greater share of women than men value people feeling safe online over people being able to speak their minds freely.

When it comes to how to address online harassment, women are more optimistic than men about a variety of potential solutions, including criminal charges for social media users who harass others online, temporary or permanent bans for users who harass others, and social media companies proactively deleting bullying or harassing posts.

Interesting. To what extent do those gender differences in harassment experiences reflect differences in men’s and women’s online activities? Men are more likely to report they had these types of experiences in online forums or gaming platforms. Is that because more men than women use such platforms?

It’s a bit complicated. Prior work from the Center suggests there are modest gender differences in gaming, with men being more likely than women to at least sometimes play video games. But this study didn’t ask if people played games online, so we can’t say whether the gender differences in harassment incidents tied to gaming hold when looking at just online gamers. It’s worth keeping in mind that the data on where people were harassed online is for people’s most recent incident, not every incident these folks may have encountered in the past. Prior Center findings show people may stop engaging in an activity – for example, withdrawing from a platform or deleting a social media account – if they encounter harassment.

Similarly, do the age differences in those who say they have experienced harassment reflect how many, and how frequently, people of different ages are online? In other words, does the fact that far more adults under 30 report experiencing online harassment reflect younger people spending much more of their lives online than older folks?

We don’t quite have enough evidence to make this causal connection, but the broad patterns are pretty clear. This survey found that adults under 30 consistently experience each of the six forms of harassment we asked about at higher rates than any other age group.

The Center’s previous work does show that younger adults are more likely to use the internet and to use it almost constantly. Our research on teens in 2018 found that greater exposure to the internet puts people at a higher likelihood of encountering harassment at some point online. It’s worth noting, though, that non-internet users were not asked about their possible experiences with online harassment. So, if people stopped using the internet sometime after they were harassed online, our data wouldn’t capture their earlier harassment experience.

The survey finds that 75% of targets of online harassment say their most recent experience was on social media. Has this been true since the Center began researching online harassment? Do people feel social media companies have done enough to discourage this behavior?

Fully 79% of Americans think social media companies are doing an only fair to poor job when it comes to addressing online harassment or bullying.

The share of online harassment targets who say their most recent harassing encounter took place on social media is growing – up 17 percentage points since 2017. The Center’s prior work reveals a variety of negative opinions Americans hold about social media companies, and when it comes to Americans’ views of how these companies handle online harassment, the pattern of criticism continues. Fully 79% of Americans think social media companies are doing an only fair to poor job when it comes to addressing online harassment or bullying on their platforms. Based on previous Center findings, American teens hold similarly negative views of social media companies’ ability to address these issues. Many Americans suggest that permanent bans for users who harass others and required identity disclosure to use these platforms would be very effective ways to combat harassment on social media.

To what extent do you think that the fact 2020 was an election year accounts for the increase in the number of people who say they were harassed because of their political views?

Politics was already a heated issue long before this election. According to other research from the Center, partisan antipathy has been growing for years. Americans increasingly say they find they have less in common politically with people with whom they disagree, and they see political discussions online as less respectful, less civil and angrier than political discussions in other places.

There are also some striking demographic differences among those who say they’ve been harassed for their politics. Online harassment targets who are White or male – 56% and 57% of each – are particularly likely to think their harassment was a result of their political views. This is especially true for White men who say they’ve been targeted, at 61%.

Other groups commonly point to other aspects of their identity as the reason they faced harassment online. For example, roughly half or more Black or Hispanic online harassment targets – 54% and 47% respectively – identify their race or ethnicity as a reason they were harassed, while only 17% of their White counterparts say the same.

Bear in mind that politics isn’t the only perceived reason for harassment being on the rise. Over the past several years, rising shares of online harassment targets have said they think they were harassed because of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.