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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to focus on their academics or concentrate on learning or working, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.
How can you respond if you or a friend or loved one is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We’re all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.
Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.
Online harassment takes various forms:
- Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
- Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
- Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
- Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
- Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
- Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
- Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
- Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.
Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:
- Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
- 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
- Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
- Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
- Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
- LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
- Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).
Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:
- Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
- Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
- Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
- Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011).
- Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.
Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:
- We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
- We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).
In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well-intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.
The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:
- A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
- A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
- Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
- Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
- Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.
Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard
The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.
Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics
Disagreeing with someone else’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.
Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional
If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.
Ask for clarification if you need it
If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”
Stay chill when you feel misunderstood
Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.
Use the reporting tools
Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.
Use your moderator powers for good
If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:
- Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
- Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
- Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
- Being open to feedback from your community and others
Support people and platforms doing good work
In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:
Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.
People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:
Think about what you can potentially accomplish
“Your goal might be to approach [someone] involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.
Reach out and offer support
You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.
Add positive comments to a negative thread
If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf
If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.
Check in with your own feelings
“It’s important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you’re in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you’re going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”
Seek support, off-line and on
“It’s important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted [friend] or [staff member] who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.
Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:
Take advantage of customization tools
Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).
Pick your friends
There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that aren’t the same as ours. However, if you’re experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.
Protect your privacy
Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.
Consider making online magic
Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.
Be aware that not all sites are created equal
Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.
Robin Stern, PhD, associate director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, Connecticut.
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