A new Pew Research Center survey of 4,248 US adults has concluded that a huge four-in-ten Americans have personally experienced harassment online.
In addition to this, 62% considered it to be a major problem, with large numbers of people being harassed online, creating a layer of negativity they have to deal with every day.
And although many people do want technology firms to do more, with nearly eight-in-ten Americans (79%) saying they have a duty to step in when harassment occurs on their platforms, the respondents are divided on how to balance free speech and safety issues online.
18% of US adults have been the target of severe behaviours, such as physical threats and sexual harassment
The report defines harassment as offensive name calling online (27% of Americans saying that this has happened to them), intentional efforts to embarrass someone (22%), stalking (7%), physical threats (10%), harassment over a sustained period of time (7%) or sexual harassment (6%).
This figure includes 18% of US adults who have experienced severe forms of harassment such as physical threats and stalking.
In total, this equates to 35% of all US adults having experienced some form of online harassment.
Americans are divided on the issues of free speech and political correctness that underline the online harassment debate
Pew Research’s study found that Americans are divided about how to balance protecting free expression online and preventing abusive behaviour on the internet.
45% of Americans said it is more important to let people speak their minds freely, but 53% said they feel it is more important for people to feel safer and welcome on social media sites.
In addition to this, 43% of Americans say offensive speech online happens too often and is not seen as a big enough problem, whereas 56% (typically 18 to 29-year-old men) say they feel people take offensive comments and content too seriously at times.
Experiences and attitudes toward online harassment vary significantly by gender
Men and women respond to comments and content on social media in very different ways.
The survey found that 44% of men and 37% of women have experienced at least one of the six behaviours that the study uses to define online harassment.
However, women are typically more likely to receive online harassment.
Pew found that 21% of women admitted to receiving some form of sexual harassment online, compared to 9% of men.
This online harassment is also more likely to leave a strong impression for women, 35% of women describing their most recent incident as either extremely or very upsetting, with only 16% of men saying the same.
Two-thirds of Americans have witnessed abusive or harassing behaviour toward others online
A majority of Americans (66%) also admitted to witnessing a form of harassing behaviour directed towards someone else online, with 39% saying they have witnessed severe behaviour such as physical threats, stalking or sexual harassment.
This is more likely to happen among the younger age group, with a whopping 86% of 18 to 29-year-olds revealing they have witnessed at least one of the six behaviours online.
A further 62% of 18 to 29-year-olds have seen others targeted with severe forms of abuse.
With this in mind, Pew found that recently, many people have decided to take their own precautions on social media in order to protect themselves.
The survey stated that 28% of Americans said that witnessing the harassment of others has encourgaged them to set up or adjust their own privacy settings on their online profiles.
Pew said: “Users increasingly see the internet as a place that facilitates anonymity. Some 86% of online adults feel that the internet allows people to be more anonymous than is true offline. This represents a notable increase from the 62% who said this in Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey. And this ability to be anonymous online is often tied to the issue of online harassment.
“Roughly half of those who have been harassed online (54%) say their most recent incident involved a stranger and/or someone whose real identity they did not know. More broadly, 89% of Americans say the ability to post anonymously online enables people to be cruel to or harass one another.”
See more on the survey here.