Four out of 10 American adults have been harassed online, according to newly released data from the Pew Research Center. In a nationally representative survey administered in January, 41 percent of the 4,248 participants said they’d been victims of at least one form of online harassment.
Pew divided the types of harassment into two categories: less severe and more severe. The former involves offensive name-calling or deliberate attempts at humiliation. More severe behaviors include threats of physical harm, stalking, long-term sustained harassment, and sexual harassment. Of the survey participants who reported experiencing harassment, 22 percent said they’d only experienced less severe varieties, while 18 percent said they’d faced at least one of the more severe behaviors.
Among young adults, those numbers are even worse. More than two-thirds of people aged 18 to 29 have been targeted by harassment—a proportion twice as large as that of people 30 and over who’ve faced harassment—and 41 percent of young adults reported being victimized by one or more of one of the most severe varieties of harassment. That may be a function of young internet users spending more time on social media (58 percent of harassment victims say their last encounter occurred on a social platform) and having more contact with strangers, who were responsible for more than half of reported harassment incidents in the survey.
These stats aren’t necessarily shocking. It’s hard for the average person to do anything online and not endure or witness some kind of harassment. In the Pew survey, 66 percent of respondents said they’d seen other people targeted by harassment online, even if they’d never experienced it themselves. Still, it’s sobering to see statistics spell out the price of letting people “speak their minds freely” online, which 45 percent of participants said was more important than providing for users’ safety and comfort. One in ten respondents said they’d been physically threatened over the internet, and one in four black respondents said they’d experienced racial harassment online.
When using the internet is necessary for so many elements of modern life and work, statistics like these should alarm and trouble tech companies whose platforms enable such abuse. As technology advances, opportunities for online harassment will multiply. See, for example, the recent case of a woman who was ridiculed for speaking out against a man who groped her in a virtual reality game. In the Pew survey, victims of online harassment reported curtailing their online activities and experiencing severe anxiety or stress after being targeted.
But some people still believe online harassment isn’t a big deal. More than half of the Pew survey respondents, including 73 percent of young men, said that people take offensive online speech too seriously, and only 54 percent of men would call online harassment a major problem. Women were significantly more likely than men to say online harassment isn’t taken seriously enough. Unsurprisingly, young women reported the highest rates of sexual harassment in the survey. Two in 10 said they’d been sexually harassed online and more than half said they’d received sexually explicit images they didn’t solicit. The harassment they experience may be more severe than what men encounter: Thirty-five percent of women who’ve been harassed said their last experience was extremely or very upsetting, more than twice the proportion of men who said the same.