Menu

Nov 21, 2016

New report shows the reach of online harassment, digital abuse, and cyberstalking


CC0 image from Pixabay.


NEW YORKNovember 21, 2016—A new report from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research offers the most comprehensive picture to date of Americans’ experiences with online harassment and abuse, finding that most U.S. internet users have witnessed online harassment, and almost half have personally experienced it.

The report, “Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America,” is based on a nationally-representative telephone survey and offers the first-ever national data on the prevalence of many types of online harassment and abuse among American internet users ages 15 and older. In addition to outlining Americans’ experiences with online harassment and abuse, the report also offers new insights into how victims of online harassment perceive and react to their abuse.

The report examines a variety of harassing behaviors ranging from online forms of “traditional” harassment, such as name-calling or physical threats, to hacking, monitoring, and other invasions of privacy. It also includes methods of denying the target access to online platforms, such as through a high volume of unwanted messages (“message bombing”), misuse of platform reporting tools, and Denial of Service (DoS) attacks.

While most online Americans have witnessed online harassment, and almost half have personally experienced it, young people, women, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Americans are more likely to experience online harassment and more likely to self-censor online postings over concerns about attracting harassment.

“These findings show that the presence—or threat—of online harassment can have effects on the overall tone of online discourse, even beyond those who are directly targeted,” said Amanda Lenhart, a Researcher at Data & Society Research Institute and one of the authors of the report. “Not only do victims of online harassment often experience personal and professional harms, but internet users who witness online harassment are more likely to self-censor in online spaces to protect themselves.”

Key findings

  • Most online Americans—72% of U.S. internet users ages 15 and older—have seen someone harassing someone else online. Internet users ages 15-29, Black internet users, and those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are all more likely to witness online harassment.
  • Almost half (47%) of internet users have personally experienced online harassment or abuse. The types of online harassment discussed in the report fall into three broad categories:
    • 36% of internet users have experienced direct harassment, such as being called offensive names, being threatened physically, or being stalked.
    • 30% of internet users have experienced invasions of privacy, such as having sensitive information or images stolen and/or posted online, or having one’s online activity tracked.
    • 17% of internet users have experienced denial of access, such receiving a large number of unwanted messages, having someone misuse a platform’s reporting tools to block them from using it, and Denial of Service (DoS) attacks.
  • More than a quarter of Americans (27%) say they have at some point decided not to post something online for fear of attracting harassment. Internet users who have seen or experienced harassment online are much more likely to self-censor in this way than those who have not.
  • Men and women are equally likely to face harassment, but women experience a wider variety of online abuse, including more serious violations. Young people and LGB Americans are also more likely to experience online harassment or abuse—and are more likely to be affected by it. They are more likely to feel scared or worried as a result of harassment, more likely to experience personal or professional harms as a result of harassment, and are often more likely to take protective measures—including self-censoring—in order to avoid future abuse.
    • Men are substantially less likely than women to describe the behaviors they experienced as harassment (40% of men versus 53% of women). Among internet users who said they experienced online harassment, women were almost three times as likely as men to say the experience made them feel scared, and twice as likely as men to say they felt worried.
    • Young women under age 30 are more likely than young men or older adults (both men and women) to experience certain types of harassment, as well as the fallout from it. For instance, 20% of young women ages 15-29 have been stalked online (compared with 8% of all internet users), and 41% of women ages 15-29 self-censor to avoid abuse.
    • LGB internet users are more than twice as likely to experience online harassment (51%) compared with heterosexual internet users (21%). LGB internet users are also far more likely to experience harms from their harassment, such as feeling disconnected from people and information, and having difficulties in their relationships.
  • Many victims experience disconnection from social and information networks as a result of their harassment. “The same protective measures that people use to distance themselves from their harassers can also distance them from vital information avenues and networks,” Lenhart said.
    • 43% of victims said they changed their contact information by changing their email address or phone number, or by creating a new social media profile under a different name.
    • 27% of victims experienced trouble in a relationship or friendship because of something that was posted about them online.
    • 13% of victims felt less connected to information and 13% felt less connected to friends or family because their cell phone or internet use was limited because of harassment or abuse.

“Our study focused on online experiences. Future research should include offline experiences to contextualize how online and offline abuse may be inter-related in some cases, and unique in others. It also may be helpful to more fully examine the role that the cultural norms and dynamics of different online spaces play in shaping the tone of discourse on a particular platform,” said Michele Ybarra, President and Research Director at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research and one of the authors of the report.

About the survey
The findings in this report are based on the results of a nationally representative survey of 3,002 Americans 15 and older conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from May 17 through July 31, 2016. Respondents were contacted by landline and cell phone, and interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The study was funded by a grant from the Digital Trust Foundation.

About Data & Society
Data & Society is a research institute in New York City that is focused on social and cultural issues arising from data-centric technological development. Data & Society is committed to identifying issues at the intersection of technology and society, providing research that can ground public debates, and building a network of researchers and practitioners who can offer insight and direction. For more, visit datasociety.net.

About the Center for Innovative Public Health Research (CiPHR)
The Center for Innovative Public Health Research, also known as CiPHR, examines the impact that technology has on health and how it can be used to affect health. We have developed programs to reduce HIV transmission, increase smoking cessation, and provide supportive resources for youth experiencing cyberbullying and people with depression. CiPHR is a non-profit, public health research incubator founded under the previous name, Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc. (ISK). Our vision is to promote positive human development through the creation and implementation of innovative and unique technology-based research and health education programs. Public health is ever evolving and so are we. For more, visit innovativepublichealth.org.

Contact
Seth Young, Data & Society
[email protected]
(646) 832-2041

###