Survey: Harassment a common part of online life

26 Oct 2014 | Author: | No comments yet »

Harassment is indeed rampant online.

WASHINGTON: Some 40% of US Internet users say they have been harassed online, and nearly three-fourths have witnessed this type of problem, a survey showed Wednesday. “It was striking to see how different varieties of harassment impacted different groups on different platforms, and the range of reactions online harassment elicited.” Among the Internet users surveyed, 27% said they had been called offensive names, 22% had someone try to purposefully embarrass them and 8% had been either stalked or physically threatened. 6% reported being sexually harassed online.

Has a real person (not some National Security Agency data mining program) ever stalked you personally online, or spied on your profile on social media sites?A report released by the Pew Research Center found that nearly three-quarters of American adults who use the Internet have witnessed online harassment. (Photo: AP/Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke ) The first-of-its-kind report by the Pew Research Center found that nearly three-quarters of American adults who use the Internet have witnessed online harassment. According to the study, 40 percent of Americans have experienced online harassment either on a social media site or app, or in comments sections at media and other websites. But I was even more unsettled by another one of the report’s findings: “Harassment occurs among all age groups,” the study’s authors wrote, “but it is especially prevalent among younger adults.” To ask this question that comes naturally from these results is to risk a bout of kids-these-days-ism. The types of harassment Pew asked about range from name-calling to physical threats, sexual harassment and stalking.” The story you’re reading is premium content available on our new premium website.

Young people ages 18 to 29, and in particular women ages 18 to 24, are the most vulnerable to such harassment, as are people who share more personal information or promote themselves online. That’s easy to say and difficult to accomplish in a world where, according to Baylor University research, male college students spend 8 hours a day and female college students 10 hours a day using their smartphones, and social media so dominates our culture. Many of the offensive actions came through social media — two-third of incidents were said to occur on these platforms — with the comments sections of website cited in 22% of cases and online gaming communities in 16%. Some of the steps including “unfriending” or blocking, while others changed their user name or withdrew from the forum or social network. 5% reported the matter to law enforcement. In real life, face to face, it takes real chutzpah to insult or harass someone, a welcome aspect that often prevents nasty thoughts from becoming overt (and possibly, later, regretted) acts.

An overwhelming 92% said the online environment allows people to be more critical compared with the offline world, but 68% said the Internet helped people be more supportive of one another. Younger users, those 18-29, are more likely to experience it and in the more serious categories, sexual assault and stalking, women are greater at risk than men. It can be difficult for police to go after online bullies in part because “our legal system hasn’t quite caught up with technology,” said Elizabeth Dowdell, a nursing professor at Villanova University who studies online aggression.

Steps against harassment included confronting the person online (47 percent), blocking the harasser (44 percent) and reporting the harasser to the website or service on which the incident took place (22 percent). But when you isolate and identify one harasser, he or she can easily set up a new account or profile, plus many times that person is a complete stranger to his or her victims.

On top of that, adults are generally hesitant to report harassment because they might view it as a “child or teenage problem.” “But the Internet has no age limits,” Dowdell said. “People look for outlets for aggression and the Internet is a wonderful place because it’s anonymous and you don’t have to be truthful.” Social networking companies have sometimes been criticized for not doing enough to stop online harassment, even though it’s standard policy to ban threats, bullying and harassment. Researchers found that these steps did have a positive effect, with 83 percent of those who ignored it and 75 percent of those who responded saying it led to the situation getting better. The Pocono Record’s reader forums have endured their share of aggressive harassers, and the newspaper does its best to bar repeat offenders who persist in making ad hominem attacks on other readers. It’s why many media outlets, like The Gadsden Times, now require those who comment on stories to attach their names or at least their Facebook profiles to their opinions. Twitter, for example, changed its policy recently after some users sent crude, altered images of Robin Williams to his daughter Zelda following the actor’s suicide in August.

It seems doubtful that any online arbiter will succeed any better than “Miss Manners” did in pre-Internet days in persuading folks to play nicely and treat others well. The ad-free, decidedly anti-Facebook website was criticized early on for not providing blocking features that are standard practice for social networks.

But for those all-too-frequent unpleasant, uncomfortable name-calling and embarrassment episodes, sometimes the best thing to do is both faster and simpler: Turn off the computer and walk away. Though online harassment is as old as the Internet itself, the Pew survey is particularly timely as conversations around it have grown louder in recent months — and not just because of the celebrity hacking scandal. Beginning this summer, people involved in an online campaign dubbed “Gamergate” have been harassing several prominent women in the video game industry and their supporters for criticizing the lack of diversity and how women are portrayed in games. It would be the oldest shtick in the columnist’s playbook for me to shove a pair of bifocals up the bridge of my nose and blame the youngsters for the coarsening of our culture.

But if what we are witnessing is not so much a prolonged shaking-off of the language of that famous battlefield — the schoolyard — but a permanent, wearied acceptance of new levels of nastiness, that is worthwhile to know. “Because this is the first time we’ve looked in-depth at this topic, we don’t have any trend data to answer your questions,” Duggan wrote in an e-mail when I asked whether the harassment rates among young Internet users were a harbinger or a phase. Duggan pointed me to a 2011 Pew study of Facebook usage, which concluded that “the typical internet user is more than twice as likely as others to feel that people can be trusted. While 14 percent of people found their most recent incident “extremely upsetting,” 22 percent said it was “not at all upsetting.” The rest of the people surveyed had reactions in between.

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