Real stats about online harassment

We all know that statistics can be twisted to prove just about anything, so the first thing I do when I stumble across any research is to check its provenance [as much as possible]. In this case, the stats relating to online harassment come from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. They claim that they take “…no positions on policy issues related to the internet”. I’m not sure I’d accept that statement at face value from any organisation, but in this instance, I can’t see the point of any bias.

In terms of accuracy, I’d be more inclined to question the survey technique itself as it relies on ‘self assessment’ rather than some kind of objective observation. Nonetheless, with a large enough sample size, statistical trends about what we think we feel/know/experience tend to be more accurate.

Gah, enough caveats; on to the data itself. You can find the full report on the Pew Research Centre website :

For me, the points that made little bells go off in my head were these :

“Fully 92% of internet users agreed that the online environment allows people to be more critical of one another, compared with their offline experiences. But a substantial majority, 68%, also agreed that online environments allow them to be more supportive of one another. Some 63% thought online environments allow for more anonymity than in their offline lives.”

The researchers do not connect the dots, but I find it hard not to do so. Anonymity is the digital equivalent of wearing a mask, or a balaclava; it allows us to indulge the parts of ourselves we usually hide.

In the real world, we have to be diplomatic in order to get on with others in our families, friendship groups, work groups etc. Online, however, anonymity allows us to vent the thoughts and feelings we usually censor. Why? Because we can get away with it.

By the same token, people who do not hide behind anonymous identities online may feel the need to be ‘nicer’ than they might be in real life. Why? Because their online reputation filters back to real life, and no one wants to be seen as ‘nasty’ or ‘selfish’.

[Does that mean I’m nastier in real life than online? Gawd, I hope not, but I probably wouldn’t admit to it even if it were true…]

Whether your views on human nature are as cynical as mine, one thing does stand out from the data – there is an awful lot of nastiness going on. Have a look at this graph:

anonymity stats 2


Now I don’t want to flog a dead horse, but the scale of the problems caused by anonymity really is huge. And we have to do something about it.

Given how inventive we humans can be, I hope that we can bring civilisation to the internet whilst still protecting those who genuinely do need to remain anonymous, but long term, our behaviour must have consequences or we’ll destroy the very thing that makes the internet so wonderful.

My thanks to the Passive Guy for spreading the word about this research.








About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

17 responses to “Real stats about online harassment

  • George

    Well, you know what they say. If you want to learn who had sex with your mother last night, just go online… (It’s a reference to online gaming and people telling you that they had sex with your mother after you win… for those here that don’t play any games online…)

    Anyway, i don’t see the internet as a tool. I think it’s a mistake to see it like that. I prefer to see it as a virtual world that co-exists with the physical one and one can influence the other. And i’m not talking sci-fi stuff here. The same people that are strolling the streets, are perusing through copper wires and fibers. People don’t realize that and it’s why they come out exaggerated. By that i mean that those people that would just shout once in traffic become real trolls in internet forums but likewise, those that want to help become “white knights”. It feels detached having that screen infront of you. We are already the sort of cyborgs we see in films with the difference that the devices are not embedded in our skin for now.

    You see games for cellphones that are augmenting reality, superimposing 3D rendered images on top of live feed video and you can interact with them and that is labeled as a toy.

    I see the internet as just another place that has tools in it, it’s not something you turn on or off, it’s not just for information gathering or message sending anymore. There’s this free game from google (i think it’s from google) that you choose your side. Sort of light side and dark side. And it connects on google maps and you get a map of your hometown on your phone, only it shows you portals, and energy pylons and things like that. Then you go there physically (i mean for the same of argument “real world”) and do something. Your presence in the physical world at that place changes the outcome of the game for that area on the virtual map.


    • acflory

      -grin- Yeah, the mother thing amongst gamers – kiddies I’d have to think – would be hilarious if they weren’t so ‘I want to hurt you’ serious about it.

      This though – ‘Your presence in the physical world at that place changes the outcome of the game for that area on the virtual map’ … THIS scares me. I’m used to imagining what they future might be like but those visions are ‘safe’ because they may never happen. This is already happening, and who knows where it’ll go from here.

      One thing is for sure, all those people who currently live on their smart phones, texting the person RIGHT NEXT TO THEM, are a scary sign of what’s to come. 😦


  • EllaDee

    The internet is an imperfect tool, and like all tools the imperfection lays in the hands of the human users, and yet for the ratio of trolls, bullies, spammers and scammers I think the world is better for it… Anonymity or no, there’s not many places to hide even given money, power and agendas. Whereas once average people viewed ourselves as islands we now understand there is a web of information, communication connecting us globally. Stepping out of our isolation grants us the power for change, and I believe the collective good will ultimately prevail.


    • acflory

      I’ll be honest, I’ve never thought of the internet in those terms, as something potentially greater than its parts. Or perhaps I haven’t thought of it as something that could change /us/. But perhaps it is leading to a form of digital evolution. Thanks for that perspective, EllaD.


  • davidprosser

    Given the propensity for the human race to declare war without much provocation, it’s no surprise that the ability to hide behind a mask makes people much more aggressive then they might be in the face of a superior and disapproving force.
    Face to face encounters tend to be much more polite and friendly when the people can see each other, that’s because we all have a need to be liked and approved of- at least those of us who aren’t psychotic- add anonymity and people feel free to say whatever is on their mind without the need to be liked.
    There are people and groups who need a degree of protection via anonymity on the net. Once that’s been established , the rest of us should have to become real people forced into a degree of politeness with others or risk being banned.The internet has opened communication up across the world, don’t let the trolls scare people away. Real people can be monitored and dealt with by the authorities just like in real life when they can no longer hide.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


    • acflory

      Well said, David! We’re constantly being bombarded with messages about how our privacy is a thing of the past [thanks to social media etc] so if that’s true then perhaps its time to voluntarily give some of it up in a good cause.


  • Honie Briggs

    I appreciate your sharing the link to the survey as well as your thoughts on this topic. I had a meeting today with six young women on campus. Our discussion was about body image and the cultural construct of ideal beauty. I’m concerned by what I heard from them about online harassment, the things people (guys and girls) say to them that are demeaning and downright cruel. I’m not sure I could navigate the twenty-something terrain that they do.


    • acflory

      Yes. 😦
      The death of Kenneth Weishuhn brought home the power of bullying to me. He was just 14. Came out as gay, and was literally hounded to commit suicide.

      I can’t say anonymity had anything to do with his death as he knew his tormentors in real life, but I remember wondering at the time ‘how could those kids have believed their malicious aggression was ok?’

      We adults /know/ it’s not ok because we grew up before the internet. But if these kids grow up believing it’s ok in real life because it’s ok online….???

      It scares me. 😦


  • Candy Korman

    I agree with your skeptical approach. Methodology is key and I find the survey to be suspect. Face-to-Face communications and interactions via the internet are an apples & oranges comparison. Back when I worked in advertising, I always checked the way numbers were presented to me. It pays to take your time and be wary of conclusions that seem simple.


    • acflory

      As a gamer I’ve experienced some of those stats at first hand so I tend to think they might be right, at least in spots. But as always, even when we humans are trying to be really really honest, we never quite tell the truth. Or perhaps self image stops us from seeing the truth about ourselves so… -shrug-


  • Carrie Rubin

    I feel more comfortable when I’m communicating online with someone who uses their real identity, or whose identity I’ve learned through their book or other correspondence. Even those bloggers I’ve followed for a long time–if I’ve never seen a pic of them or learned their real name, I feel a bit of a disconnect. Doesn’t make me enjoy our interaction less, but it feels less real, I suppose.

    As for harassment, I’m with you–one of the reasons it’s so rampant is because of anonymity. In fact, I’d say that’s the biggest reason. When people use their real identity, they’re less likely to attack. Why would they? Anything that goes on the Internet is forever. That’s incentive enough to make most people behave. At least I would hope so!


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