Online harassment less likely & less distressing than in-person

by Larry Magid

An important study conducted by a group of elite researchers in the field of youth victimization leads me to conclude that the role of technology in youth harassment has been greatly exaggerated. The research, conducted by Kimberly J. Mitchell, Lisa M. Jones, Heather A. Turnerharassment, Anne Shattuck, and Janis Wolak, was published by the American Psychological Association.

In their report, “The Role of Technology in Peer Harassment: Does It Amplify Harm for Youth?” the researchers explained that just over a third (34%) of youth (10-20) reported peer-harassment incidents in the past year. Of those, 54% took place in person, 15% through technology only and 31% were a mixture of in-person and through technology. When you factor out the 66% of youth who didn’t report harassment, this means that 17% of all youth reported in-person harassment compared to 5% via tech-only and 12% via a mixture of tech and in-person.

The researchers also looked into the frequently assumed notion that tech amplifies harm to victims, but found that not to be the case.

“Technology-only harassment incidents were significantly less distressing to victims than in-person harassment incidents,” they wrote. And, according to the research, “youth reported that technology-only incidents were easier to stop than those that occurred solely in-person.” Technology-only harassment incidents also were less likely to involve other harassment characteristics.

The research did find that incidents that combined in-person with technology harassment were more likely to be distressing to youth and that “mixed incidents shared many features with in-person only episodes, such as similar rates of repeated harassment happening over time.”

Challenging common beliefs

A lot of people have written that online harassment can be worse than in-person because of how easy it is to post pictures or videos anonymously to large and invisible audiences that can pile on. There is also the widely held concern that cyberbullying can affect children 24 hours a day. And there is also the concern that evidence of online harassment can stick around and haunt youth long after the incidents end. While all of this is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cyber incidents are more distressing than in-person ones. Likewise, it could also be true, say the researchers, that technology could lessen the emotional impact of harassment compared to in-person incidents (perhaps because youth have more time to think about their response). There can be (and often is) more peer support expressed online than in person, and the fact that online harassment can be recorded and often traced means there may be both a disincentive to use technology to harass and a more effective way to track down and punish those who harass others.

My take

The researchers don’t say this, but it’s clear to me that a lot of the theories around cyberbullying and harassment have been based on assumptions rather than research. It’s easy to see why. It doesn’t take that much imagination to speculate as to what could happen as a result of technology and – with nearly all youth in the U.S. online – it’s never hard to find anecdotal evidence to support any assumption. With the tens of millions of youth online every day, of course, we can find examples that fit any possible scenario. It’s only when you do detailed research of online vs. offline incidents, as this study does, that you can begin to get a clearer picture of the role of technology.