A whopping 4 in 10 Internet users have personally experienced online harassment, according to a new report from Pew Research Center that casts new light on the exact breadth, and depth, of the cyberbullying problem — and new doubt on the inherent good/evil of Internet-enabled humans.
The report, out this morning, demonstrates that harassment, is widespread across social media, comments sections and online games. And while such harassment is particularly severe amongst young women, it impacts men, too: In fact, Pew found that, across all platforms, men actually receive more harassment than women, complaining of abuse at a rate of 44 percent — compared to 37 percent among ladies.
That’s a surprising revelation, given the numerous, sobering reports of online misogyny and other unpleasantness over the past 12 months. Just last week, the brutal social-media bullying of female video game developers made an otherwise fringe conflict in the gaming community mainstream, international news.
And yet, while the Pew report does document severe, high-profile harassment toward women — who are, for instance, more likely to be sexually harassed or stalked — it suggests that men may also suffer, if in very different ways.
They’re more likely to experience offensive name-calling and attempts to embarrass them, for instance, the two most common types of online harassment. They rarely know the identity of the person going after them. And they’re far more likely to be bullied in comments sections’ or online gaming platforms — places where, notably, harassment isn’t necessarily visible to the broader online community, and thus doesn’t receive the same amount of attention that, say, a nasty tweet does.
“This happens too regularly in online games to remember a specific occurrence,” one respondent told Pew, an observation that echoes prior research into bullying among schoolchildren: it’s far more common among boys, studies suggest; so common and so casual, in fact, that it just fades into a background throb of nastiness.
Women, on the other hand, are more likely to experience more acute instances of abuse: sexual harassment (which 7 percent have suffered), stalking (9 percent), attacks from acquaintances, ex-partners and other people they know. Among young women, those rates are even higher: A stunning one in four women, ages 18 to 24, have been stalked or sexually harassed on the Internet. Accordingly, women are far more likely to feel the impact of these attacks; they find harassment “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting” at roughly twice the rate of men.
But these statistics — as Pew implies over and over in its discussion of the numbers — have little to do with “sensitivity” or other conventional, gendered explanations for online abuse. Instead, they go pretty far to explaining the critical distinction between the male and female experience of harassment online, an experience with corollaries in schoolyards and workplaces the world over. Men, for whatever reason, seem to experience bullying as an annoying, even-pitched, locker-room hum of anonymous name-calling and bickering; women experience it in sharper, scarier jabs — acute, personal attacks that leave the victim shaken and reaching for the “block” button, if not the telephone.
Is that generalization true for everyone? No, of course not — these are just overarching trends. And the Pew report demonstrates, perhaps more than any other research to date, that the victims of online harassment are far more varied, and more common, than we typically tend to assume. And ultimately, that only makes online abuse a more pressing issue for the platforms, advocates and lawmakers who are grappling with it already.
“The Internet has a dark side,” Pew points out; now the question is, how do we fix that — not just for women, but for everyone?