Divide on Online Harassment

A majority of Americans agree that online harassment is prevalent and common in the digital world of America - 41% of Americans have personally experienced online harassment, and 62% think it is a major issue. However, definitions of online harassment are where opinions diverge. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey on what behaviors Americans described as online harassment. Respondents were presented with fictional scenarios depicting instances of online harassment, and were asked to identify what parts of the scenario they considered to be online harassment.

Most respondents stated that direct and personal threats constitute online harassment, but were more split on instances like the sending of unkind messages and public sharing of a private conversation. A broad consensus was also reached in the intervention of social media platforms during instances of direct threats, but again, were divided on when or if at all social media platforms should intervene during instances of harassment.

Scenarios included instances of online harassment tied with elements of private disagreements escalating into public spectacles, sexism, and racism. For example, one scenario explored the respondents’ opinions on what constitutes online harassment, when public social media platforms should intervene, and how women and men differed in deciding at what point the scenario began showing elements of online harassment.

While 89% of Americans agree that there is some sort of online harassment occurring in the above scenario, people diverged in opinion on where individual elements of the story resemble online harassment, with 3% of Americans thinking that Julie’s initial disagreement with her friends constitutes online harassment. Only 43% of Americans consider the unkind messages Julie receives to be online harassment, but 85% thought that the vulgar messages about her looks and sexual behavior was online harassment. Interestingly, 17% of Americans considered the public sharing of Julie’s private messages to be online harassment.

This particular scenario also showed that women are more likely than men to view certain behaviors in this scenario as harassment.

As for intervention of social media platforms in this scenario, only 20% of respondents thought that the social media platform had the duty to step in to address the behavior described.

While social media remains a platform of the free exchange of ideas, it is also the most common venue of online harassment. Particularly in the cases of young women and cyber-stalking, online harassment is a prevalent problem that seems to have differing standards, but has a consensus that it is an issue that needs to be fixed.


Sophia Kim


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