Online Harassment Is More Prevalent Than We Think

by Catie Keck

It is no secret that harassment has long walked hand-in-hand with Internet culture, but according to one new alarming study, online harassment may be far more prevalent than previously thought. A new survey of 2,849 web users published by Pew Research reveals that 4 in 10 people experience some form of harassment online, with 44 percent of men and 37 percent of women claiming to have been called offensive names, purposefully embarrassed, stalked, sexually harassed, physically threatened, or have sustained other types of harassment. This was particularly true for adults who said their lives are “especially entwined with the Internet,” whether they work in the digital tech industry or simply promote themselves online.

But what’s more troublesome than the frequency with which people are cyber-bullied online is the variation in types of bullying faced by men and women (this study was conducted pre-Gamergate, mind you). Age and gender are a main factor in the types of harassment experienced by those targeted, and young women face the most severe forms of web harassment. Pew found that of the women surveyed who were between the ages of 18 and 24, 26 percent said they had been stalked online, while 25 percent said they were targeted with sexual harassment (disproportionately higher percentages than men in both these categories). Here's how the numbers break down:

So who are these jerks?

Well, it may be difficult to tell. According to the survey, 38 percent of those who’d been accosted online said their perpetrator was a stranger, while 26 percent admitted that they didn’t know the real identity of their troll. “Taken together,” says the report, “this means half of those who have experienced online harassment did not know the person involved in their most recent incident.”

Where are people experiencing harassment the most?

Pew found that 66 percent of study participants reported that their last experience with harassment occurred on social media; 22 percent reported it happened in the comments section of a website; 16 percent reported online gaming was a catalyst (again, pre-Gamergate); 16 percent said personal email had been the source; 10 percent said discussion web hosts like reddit were forums for accosting commentators; and 6 percent said online dating was the source of their harassment (we’re looking at you, Tinder). So either people are much more critical of strangers, or IRL acquaintances are more inclined to hold their tongues.

While Pew's findings are alarming, they aren't entirely surprising — and that's a problem. In another recent poll conducted by YouGov, one in three millennial Americans admitted to trolling someone online at some point, with 30 percent of men and 18 percent of women admitting they had “argued maliciously” with a stranger about an opinion online. The poll also found that a disheartening 14 percent of Americans don't believe trolling can be fought.

So what do you do if you find yourself in a situation with a web troll? Here are a few of the most effective ways to respond:

  • Keep a log. Screenshot or copy/paste the correspondence. It’s better to be safe than sorry when dealing with a person who derives pleasure from berating others on the web.
  • Do not troll your troll. While a snide remark may calm your nerves in the short term, your cyber stalker will undoubtedly feed off of your response. Of the adults surveyed in Pew's study, 83 percent reported that ignoring their harasser was effective.
  • If the harassment ensues, block and report your attacker. Regardless of whether your harasser is a complete stranger or a childhood acquaintance, cyber bullying, stalking, and harassment is unacceptable. Feel free to hit “mute” on the Negative Nancy who brings nothing to the conversation.

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