Featured | 01.18.17

Online Harassment, Digital Abuse

In the current political and social climate, online harassment and abuse are topics that remain uncomfortably in the forefront of conversations around the uneven effects of networked technologies and information flows.

Data & Society and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research have conducted an 18-month study of online harassment and abuse among Americans 15 and older. The work was funded by the Digital Trust Foundation. Our study has produced four reports, each examining a different dynamic: online harassment, nonconsensual image sharing (also known as “revenge porn”), a backgrounder on current social media trends, and – new today – digital abuse between current and former romantic partners.

Several themes recur throughout the reports. Young adults, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals, and those with lower incomes bear the brunt of much of online harassment and abuse. The data also suggest that, while men and women often broadly report a similar likelihood of experiencing online harassment and abuse, when we drill deeper into the data (in the places where we can), the experience of harassment and abuse varies substantially, especially in the level of fear and the duration and severity of the types of harassment women experience as opposed to men.

For many, especially victims of current or former intimate partners, the harms and challenges arising from this abuse are real and substantial — from the disconnection and loss of supportive relationships to financial and professional harms from exposure of information and images, from hacking to lost job and educational opportunities.

“Perhaps even more importantly, victims and those who are worried that they might be targeted, are less likely to participate in the digital public sphere,” notes Amanda Lenhart, one of the lead researchers on the study. “The absence of these voices may be having non-trivial impacts on our democratic process.”

Reports and key findings:

Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America | methods | press release
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 as 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.

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.

Nonconsensual Image Sharing | press release
Media coverage of revenge porn largely focuses on instances when celebrities have had private nude or explicit photos or videos made public without their consent, but this experience is not limited to the famous and newsworthy. One in 25 Americans have had images shared or have had someone threaten to do so.

  • 3% of all online Americans have had someone threaten to post nude or nearly nude photos or videos of them online to hurt or embarrass them.
  • 2% of online Americans have had someone actually post a photo of them online without their permission.

Intimate Partner Digital Abuse | press release
12% of internet users who have been in a romantic relationship report that they have been digitally harassed or abused by a current or former romantic partner.

  • Three times as many younger people (22%) as those who were 30 years or older (8%) reported being digitally harassed by a current or former romantic partner.
  • 38% of individuals who identified as LGB have experienced intimate partner digital abuse, compared with 10% of heterosexual individuals.

Social Media Use by Americans, 2016 (Data Memo)
Young adults are more likely to use social media and discussion sites than older individuals, women are more likely to use social media than men.

  • 81% of American internet users use social media.
  • 16% of internet users use an online discussion site.

Additional reading:

As always, we welcome your feedback: [email protected].


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