By Alyssa Rosenberg
October 24, 2014
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The Pew Research Center released a report this week that attempted to take a snapshot of the uglier side of online discourse. I wrote yesterday about the role that online gaming plays in driving the harassment of young men in particular. 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.”
The entrance to Facebook’s main campus in Menlo Park, Calif. (Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
To ask this question that comes naturally from these results is to risk a bout of kids-these-days-ism. But I will risk it: Is online harassment a phase we grow out of? Or will it be a permanent and growing part of our lives on the Internet?
The Pew researchers, led by Maeve Duggan, found that 40 percent of their 2,839 survey respondents reporting having been harassed, and 73 percent of them had observed the harassment of someone else.
These figures would be disturbing enough on their own. But younger respondents reported higher rates of harassment than older adults did. If younger uses are early adopters of new technologies, should we brace ourselves for online conservations to get uglier?
The differences between young Internet users and adults who go online as a whole are striking. Forty-nine percent of young people surveyed have been called “offensive names” online, compared with 27 percent percent of all adults surveyed. Twenty percent have been threatened with physical harm, though just 8 percent of all adults surveyed have had that experience. And 14 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 29 have experienced sustained harassment online. Only 7 percent of adults overall who were surveyed have been targeted in this way.
Being young and female seems to make you a particular target. Twenty-six percent of female respondents between ages 18 and 24 have been stalked, and 25 percent have experienced online sexual harassment. Those rates of harassment are, respectively, 18 and 19 percentage points higher than those surveyed experienced as a whole.
Online harassment is also concentrated in media that are more popular with younger users. Sixty-six percent of the respondents who reported being harassed said that their attacker’s barbs were delivered via social media, as compared with just 16 percent of users who said that they were harassed through messages sent to their personal e-mail accounts.
“[Social media’s] popularity with younger internet users is especially tied to the high incidence of online harassment on social media sites and apps,” Duggan and her colleagues wrote. In other words: It is not social media that makes people cruel. Instead, people in the demographic experiencing the most cruelty are heavy users of social media, so harassment shows up more there than elsewhere.
So what is going on here? 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.
Of course, the Internet is more than a wretched hive of scum and villainy.
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. Further, we found that Facebook users are even more likely to be trusting.” The researchers also found that Facebook was a conduit for so much emotional support that “for Facebook users, the additional boost is equivalent to about half the total support that the average American receives as a result of being married or cohabitating with a partner.”
In the end, it may be that the Internet leaves us more open and vulnerable to the rest of the world, for both good and ill. Venturing online may mean exposing ourselves to the cruelties of strangers. (Most respondents in the most recent study told Pew that the person harassing them was either a complete stranger or that they were unsure of the real identity of their attacker.) Making ourselves available there also gives our friends an easy way to extend kindness to us and to express support when we are being harassed.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.