Online Harassment: Numbers tell a sordid story

Harassment— the new reality online, from name calling to more serious and violent threatening behavior— has sadly become a common part of online life that colors the experiences of many web users. An alarmingly high number of 73% of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and an equally shocking 40% have personally experienced it, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Let us look at this disturbing trend today.

Pew Research asked respondents about six different forms of online harassment. Those who witnessed harassment said they had seen at least one of the following occur to others online:

  1. 60% of internet users said they had witnessed someone being called offensive names
  2. 53% had seen efforts to purposefully embarrass someone
  3. 25% had seen someone being physically threatened
  4. 24% witnessed someone being harassed for a sustained period of time
  5. 19% said they witnessed someone being sexually harassed
  6. 18% said they had seen someone be stalked


The respondents who have personally experienced online harassment said they were the target of at least one of the following online harassment categories:

  1.  27% of internet users have been called offensive names
  2. 22% have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
  3. 8% have been physically threatened
  4. 8% have been stalked
  5. 7% have been harassed for a sustained period
  6. 6% have been sexually harassed

On a personal level, I belong to the 22% above and get it almost daily, predominantly on facebook. But by now, have learnt to handle it! The sad part is it almost always comes from people you know and trust! And that makes more negative impact than anything else.

Although it is bad, the name calling and poking with banter can be, to some level tolerated. But when people try to give you physical and extremely violent threats, it stops being funny after that. Thankfully, the less violent kind of harassment seems to be more prevalent as of now. But I should tell you that I am aware of thousands of social media accounts that exist only to threaten, harass and get personal with people. But that analysis, we shall reserve for another day!  Now back to the topic

Looking at the trends, the survey data shows that men are more likely to experience name-calling and embarrassment, while young women are prominently exposed to sexual harassment and stalking. Social media is the most place where of both types of harassment happen, curiously men say that online gaming and comments sections are the other spaces they typically bear the brunt of harassment. Those who exclusively experience less severe forms of harassment go through fewer emotional or personal impact, while those with more severe harassment experiences often experience and have to deal with more serious emotional tolls that require professional attention and treatment over a period of time.

Key findings

Target of Harassment: Age and gender are most closely associated with the experience of online harassment. Among online adults:

Young adults, those 18-29, are more likely than any other group to experience online harassment. A very shocking and high 65% of young internet users have been the target of at least one of the six elements of harassment that were queried in the survey. Among those 18-24, the proportion is 70%. Alarming to say the least!

Young women, those 18-24, go through more severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. In addition, they also get extremely heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.

The study also states that men are more likely than women to experience at least one of the elements of online harassment, 44% men vs. 37% women. In terms of specific numbers, men are more likely than women to encounter name-calling, embarrassment, and physical threats.



Apart from the demographic groups above , those whose lifestyle mandates that they stay online on the internet report experiencing higher rates of harassment online. This includes people who have more information available about them online, those who have to promote themselves online for their job, and those who are employed in the digital technology industry.

Who indulges in online harassment: The study suggests that out of the respondents, 38%, said a stranger was responsible for their most recent incident and another 26% said they didn’t know the real identity of the person or people involved. Taken together, this means half of those who have experienced online harassment did not know the person involved in their most recent incident.

Location of Harassment: Online harassment is much more prevalent in some online environments than in others. Following are the numbers from respondents:

  1.  66% of internet users who have experienced online harassment said their most recent incident occurred on a social networking site or app
  2. 22% mentioned the comments section of a website
  3. 16% said online gaming
  4. 16% said in a personal email account
  5. 10% mentioned a discussion site such as reddit
  6. 6% said on an online dating website or app

Responses to online harassment: Among the respondents who have experienced online harassment, 60% decided to ignore their most recent incident while 40% took some action to respond to it. Those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment took the following actions as per the study:

  1.  47% of those who responded to their most recent incident with online harassment confronted the person online
  2. 44% unfriended or blocked the person responsible
  3. 22% reported the person responsible to the website or online service
  4. 18% discussed the problem online to draw support for themselves
  5. 13% changed their username or deleted their profile
  6. 10% withdrew from an online forum
  7. 8% stopped attending certain offline events or places
  8. 5% reported the problem to law enforcement

Irrespective of whether a user ignored or responded to the harassment, people were generally satisfied with their outcome of their approach or response to harassment. Some 83% of those who ignored it and 75% of those who responded thought their decision was effective at making the situation better.

The people who went through more “severe” harassment experiences responded very differently to their most recent incident with harassment when compared to those with less “severe” experiences. Those who have ever experienced stalking, physical threats, or sustained or sexual harassment were more inclined and determined to take multiple steps in response to their latest incident than those who have only experienced name-calling and embarrassment, the numbers are 67% vs. 30%. They are more likely to take actions like unfriending or blocking the person responsible, confronting the person online, reporting the person to a website or online service, changing their username or deleting their profile, and ending their attendance at certain offline events and places.

After-effects of online harassment: When respondents were asked how upsetting their most recent experience with harassment was, the responses ran a wide spectrum spectrum from being quite jarring to being of no real consequence:

  1.  14% of those who have experienced online harassment found their most recent incident extremely upsetting
  2. 14% found it very upsetting
  3. 21% said it was somewhat upsetting
  4. 30% reported it was a little upsetting
  5. 22% found it not at all upsetting

In total, half found their most recent experience with online harassment a little or not at all upsetting. But a significant minority, 27%, found the experience extremely or very upsetting. This tells us that people are now beginning to take harassment in their stride. And that is not a good sign by any yardstick.

Women were more likely than men to find their most recent experience with online harassment extremely or very upsetting—38% of harassed women said so of their most recent experience, compared with 17% of harassed men. That can be attributed to the stark difference in the type of harassment that the two genders are subjected to. Hence not surprising at all. Seriously concerning.

As expected, there were differences in the emotional impact of online harassment on the respondents based on the level of severity one had experienced in the past. Some 37% of those who have ever experienced sexual harassment, stalking, physical threats, or sustained harassment called their most recent incident with online harassment “extremely” or “very” upsetting compared with 19% of those who have only experienced name-calling or embarrassment. Given past experience and the psychological impact that has, this number is understandable. Worrying at the same time though.

When we look at longer-term impacts on reputation, there is a similar pattern. More than 80% of those who have ever been victim of name-calling and embarrassment did not feel their reputation had been hurt by the online harassment. Those who experienced physical threats and sustained harassment felt differently. About a third felt their reputation had been damaged by the online harassment. Overall, 15% of those who have experienced online harassment said it impacted their reputation negatively.


Perceptions of online environments: To explore the context that informs online harassment, respondents were asked about their general perceptions of and attitudes toward various online environments.

A whopping 92% of internet users agreed that the online space allows people to be more critical of one another, compared with their offline experiences. And a substantial majority, 68%, also agreed that online environments allow them to be more supportive of one another. Also, 63% thought online environments allow for more anonymity than in their offline lives. And many rue the fact that anonymity is a shield for habitual harassers who are more popularly called trolls.

Out of all internet users, the % who thought the following environments online were more welcoming to men, more welcoming to women, or equally welcoming to both. Respondents were asked whether they thought a series of online platforms were more welcoming toward men, more welcoming toward women, or equally welcoming to both sexes. While most online environments were viewed as equally welcoming to both genders, the starkest results were for online gaming. Some 44% of respondents felt the platform was more welcoming toward men.

abuse5 In Summary, the results of the study are a set of numbers that we all need to worry about, the trends suggest that women and your adults are having a really rough time online and alarmingly we seem to think that abuse or harassment is part of being online. Efforts need to be taken by the platforms, regulators and users in unison to fight this malaise that is eating into our society. The time to act is now and WE are the people who need to act. So what are you waiting for? NOW!!!


(Note: All images are copyrighted by Pew Research)

About Shakthi

I am a Tech Blogger, Disability Activist, Keynote Speaker, Startup Mentor and Digital Branding Consultant. Also a McKinsey Executive Panel Member. Also known as @v_shakthi on twitter. Been around Tech for two decades now.

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