New Research About the Online Harassment of Teenagers

27% of victims, which translates to 11% of all internet users, experienced trouble in a relationship or friendship because of something that was posted about them online.

This morning I read a newly released Data & Society study about the prevalence of online harassment in America. The lead researcher is Amanda Leinhart, formerly of Pew Internet. (Press release, Full report)

About the Research

First, understand that this is a first of it’s kind study. So think of this as establishing some baselines as well as incorporating what will be measured going forward. In other words, as I read the report there wasn’t a clear way to determine trends. We don’t know if online harassment is better or worse today than 2, 5, or 10 years ago. This research is just showing you the current state of online harassment among the people they interviewed.

About the Teenagers in this Study

The study’s scope was broad, including all Americans. So the actual sample size of teenagers in the study is pretty small. So, as Leinhart pointed out to me this morning via Twitter, we need to be careful what conclusions we may draw or things we might infer based on such a small sample size.

Below I’ll share excerpts from the study as well as my thoughts in bold.

Witnessing Online Harassment

“Almost three in four (72%) internet users [all ages] have witnessed at least one of the seven behaviors asked, and one in twenty (5%) have witnessed all of them. This is in line with previous research by the Pew Research Center, which found that 73% of internet users have witnessed one of six harassing activities.” (See page 11)

15-17 year olds report

  • 83% – Someone being called offensive names
  • 78% – Someone trying to embarrass another person on purpose
  • 50% – Someone being physically threatened
  • 28% – A romantic partner purposefully hurting their partner emotionally psychologically
  • 38% – Someone being sexually harassed
  • 1% – Someone being harassed online over a long period of time.
  • 33% – Someone being stalked
  • 88% – Any of these

(see page 14)

That 83% number looms large. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. And this doesn’t necessarily imply that the harassment they are witnessing is of someone they personally know. So it could be that they’ve read harassing Twitter threads or seen a nasty Snapchat story. The fact that 1% of respondents witnessed harassment over a long period of time seems to indicate that they’ve seen things as a one-off. So while those numbers are troubling, they aren’t damning. 

Experiencing Direct Online Harassment

15-17 year olds report

  • Called offensive names – 49%
  • Tried to embarrass you – 38%
  • Physical threats – 15% Invasions of privacy
  • Sexually harassed – 10%
  • Romantic partner hurt you – 10%

(see page 25)

There are about 41 million teenagers in America. 20 million of them have been called a name online, that’s pretty bad. When you consider that 3.2 million teenagers have reported being bullied at school, the online world can be the Wild Wild West. So we have some work to do to help foster the Internet as a safe place to be. However, at the same time, we need to remember that part of maturing is learning how to respond to people who call you names, who try to embarrass you, and who threaten you. Not all negative behavior is something we have to freak out about. Instead, let’s work on equipping teenagers to deal with these things as they come up. 

Along those lines, people 15-29 are more likely to do something about this than older adults, such as “Flag or report the harassment they witnessed (51% of witnesses ages 15-29 vs. 31% of witnesses 30 and older)” (see page 18) 

Invasions of privacy

“30% of Americans have had information stolen or shared and/or their personal messages, experiences, and locations surveilled by an online harasser” (page 27)

15-17 year olds report

  • Hacked your accounts and stole info – 12%
  • Used social media info and made you feel uncomfortable – 7%
  • Stolen or coerced password – 6%
  • Damaging exposure of sensitive information – 7%
  • Monitored your online or phone activity – 11%
  • Read messages without permission – 12%
  • Tracked your location – 11%

(See pages 29-30)

This particular line of exploration was interesting in light of the work I’ve done leading parent seminars. Inevitably there are questions… usually the very first question during Q&A… about surveilling the online activities of teenagers. If I were to summarize my perception of these questions it’s usually along these lines.

  • This question almost always comes from a parent of a new teenager, such as a middle school or younger. In other words, they are asking this but are still parenting from a posture of control (childhood) instead of one rooted in understanding adolescent development. 
  • Parents feel the need to monitor their kids online behavior but don’t know how, more importantly they feel conflicted as they are being told (by culture, their church, some other voice) they should even though it seems like a violation of their privacy.
  • They recognize that their own parents efforts to monitor their peer relationships/romantic relationships was silly, at best. I always say something like, “How did that work out for Romeo & Juliet?” 
  • Parents who are keen to surveil their middle schoolers crinkle their noses at surveilling older teenagers. 

So when I see those bottom three items it affirms something I’ve seen for a while: Parents are being told they should invade their kids privacy, but they don’t. While this data wasn’t designed to answer this question specifically and the sample size of teenagers isn’t meaningful in light of the rest of the study, it does not show evidence of large-scale surveillance by parents. Leinhart responded to my inquiry about this on Twitter, “For a certain relatively small percentage of adults, they told us it was “The Govt.” But for most people, its a current or former romantic partner” [I edited her tweet for clarification]

In other words, of the 11%-12% of 15-17 year olds reporting violations of privacy in the surveillance category, most of that isn’t even parents. So parents, particularly Christian parents, are feeling the need to monitor their teenagers online behavior… but almost none actually do. 

In my opinion that’s just fine. That actually makes me feel quite relieved both as a parent and a youth worker. As Danah Boyd talked about in It’s Complicated, teenagers really need somewhere– as she defines them as “networked publics” to just be teenagers without the prying eyes of adults. 

Other Important Findings for Teenagers

“Overall, users [all ages] of social media sites, online discussion boards, and multiplayer video games are significantly more likely to have been called offensive names online once demographic and related factors are controlled for. Use of social media sites, online discussion boards, and multiplayer video games also explains much of the difference between men and women, and older and younger youth in terms of being called offensive names and being threatened online.”

(see page 39)

In other words, video games and forums remain as the Wild West when it comes to things being rough. Social media sites are actually a bit more polite comparatively. User beware…. 

“27% of victims, which translates to 11% of all internet users, experienced trouble in a relationship or friendship because of something that was posted about them online. Victims under age 30, in lower-income households, and those identifying as LGB were significantly more likely to have experienced relationship or friendship trouble.”

(see page 47)

This has been the subject of a million movies and sitcoms, no real surprise here that something posted online can negatively impact relationships. 

“About 21% of those who have experienced online harassment, or about 5% of all internet users, have stopped using social media altogether in order to protect themselves from further harassment. There were no significant differences by sex, age, race/ethnicity, or between any of the other subgroups in our analysis.”

(See page 52)

“32% of 15-17 year old internet users have decided not to post something online because they were worried that they would be harassed online because of it.”

(see page 54)

This is really important because it speaks to the silencing effect of online harassment. People are simply getting shouted down by mean voices. That cannot be.

Final Thought

I have a lot more to say about this subject. But I share all of this to say that you and I have more work to do. We need to both understand who is being harassed online as well as further understand the impact of online harassment has. Everyone is certainly allowed their opinions, but everyone should also be allowed to share their opinions without being attacked.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

Leave a Reply