Figuring out cyberbullying and online harassment. It’s harder than you’d think.

New Scientist takes a hard look at the realities of online harassment – how complicated it is to identify, why it’s increasing, and what can actually be done about it:

For example, men experience it slightly more often than women and are twice as likely to be targeted for their political views, but women are more likely to report abuse that targets them for their gender alone. One in five young women reported being sexually harassed. Black people reported far more incidents of being harassed online simply for being black, rather than in response to any particular view or comment.

This difference in experiences may explain why people are divided on solutions: 45 per cent of people in the US say it’s more important to let people speak freely online, while 53 per cent say it’s more important to feel safe.

In the survey, [Maeve] Duggan [at the Pew Research Center in Washington DC] tried to provide a consistent framework by breaking down harassment into six distinct behaviours that increase in severity. Offensive name-calling and purposeful embarrassment are considered “less severe”, while physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment and stalking fall into the more serious end of the spectrum. Almost one in five Americans report having experienced these four more severe behaviours.

Roughly one-third of the participants who had had an experience that met the survey’s definition considered it to be online harassment, whereas one-third did not. The remaining participants weren’t sure.

Everyone seems to agree that anonymity is a crucial factor: 89 per cent of respondents said being able to post anonymously allows people to be cruel or harass one another.