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Online harassment is a problem we must all confront

Last week was Digital Citizenship Week, which was mostly about the online rights and responsibilities of teens and children. But after reviewing the results of a recent Pew Research survey on adult harassment, I’m starting to think that we need a digital citizenship campaign for adults too.

The Pew survey found that 40 percent of adult Internet users said they had been harassed online, and nearly three-quarters — 73 percent — said they had seen someone being harassed. Young adults have it worse: Nearly two-thirds — 65 percent — of Internet users age 18 to 29 have been the target of at least one type of harassment.

And it’s not just online. The Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 survey found that 27 percent of employees have experienced abusive behavior at work while 7 percent are currently being bullied.

I bring up the comparison between adult and teens to illustrate that we as adults need to think about our own behavior before chastising teens for theirs. While adults should help young people learn good “netiquette,” it’s also our responsibility to be role models in that regard whether we’re parents, adult siblings of teens or just folks that teens encounter online.

The study’s open-ended comments reflected some of the course comments that I’ve observed online, such as one person who said, “Through social media, and especially when commenting on controversial issues, often my difference of opinion from others would result in those who do not agree insulting and berating instead of arguing their point respectfully.”

And lest you think that either side of the political divide has a monopoly on online rudeness, consider these two comments: “Every time I say something in favor of the President I get called all kinds of names” while another reported name-calling “because I don’t support Obama policies and occasionally get accused of being racist.”

The study also found that “those who live out more of their lives online–whether for work, pleasure, or both–are more likely to experience harassment,” which didn’t surprise me considering how much I’ve experienced as a writer and broadcaster whose work shows up online.

I write about tech, not politics, but that doesn’t stop the insults from flowing. I’ve been accused of being both a shill for Microsoft and Macintosh “fanboy.” Some think I’m biased toward Android devices while others have accused me of being on Apple’s payroll. As any tech journalist will tell you, emotions run high when it comes to our favorite technology products, but what should be a fun and spirited debate over the latest and greatest gadgets often turns into a barrage of name-calling.

My experience is nothing compared to what happened to Zelda Williams and others cited by Pew as examples of how cruel some people can be online. Williams, the daughter of the late Robin Williams, stopped using Twitter and other social media after experiencing vicious comments in the wake of her father’s suicide.

She later returned to social media, starting with the tweet, “I just want to say thank you for all the stories and letters I’ve been receiving, especially from those who’ve also lost loved ones,” demonstrating the other side of online emotions. Yes, the same technology that can facilitate cruelty can also be used to express support and empathy.

The study found that young women “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels,” including stalking and sexual harassment while not escaping the “heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general.”

Soraya Chemaly, a social activist who (in her words) frequently writes about “gender absurdities in media, politics, religion and pop culture,” wrote a Time opinion piece arguing that “cyber-misogyny has steadily increased during the past year.”

She pointed to several examples, including the case of Amanda Hess, a journalist who had to suspend her Twitter account after countless cases of harassment along with death threats from someone with the username “headlessfemalepig.”

Chemaly’s observation about a steady increase may be correct, but these types of attacks are certainly not new. Monica Lewinsky, who became famous as a result of a sexual relationship with then President Bill Clinton, experienced it way back in 1998, years before Facebook, Twitter or even MySpace or for that matter Google.

“Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one. I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet,” she told an audience at a Forbes conference last week.”

In the sixteen years since Lewinsky first experienced online harassment, technology has come a very long way. Now it’s time for the rest of us to evolve, starting with online adults.

The numbers

  • 27% Internet users who say they have been called offensive names22% Internet users who have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them
  • 8% Internet users who have been physically threatened
  • 8% Internet users who have been stalked.
  • 25% Women aged 18 to 24 who have been sexually harassed online.