(CN) – Most Americans say online harassment is a significant problem but are divided when it comes to balancing the right to free speech with the right to peruse the internet free from harassment.
According to a survey conducted by Pew Research, 41 percent of 4,200 adults surveyed say they have experienced some form of online harassment and approximately two-thirds (66 percent) have personally witnessed harassment-type behavior directed toward others online.
“For those who experience online harassment directly, these encounters can have profound real-world consequences, ranging from mental or emotional stress to reputational damage or even fear for one’s personal safety,” Pew Researcher Maeve Duggan wrote in the study released on Tuesday.
Much of the harassment described by survey participants is of the fairly innocuous variety, including verbal jabs or negativity directed toward them on social media sites as they navigate their daily internet routines.
However, 18 percent of those surveyed reported more virulent harassment, including physical threats, sustained harassment over a period of time and sexual harassment or stalking, the survey said.
While social media sites are particularly susceptible to online harassment, many of the survey participants say they’ve experienced harassment on other sites as well.
Politics was the greatest source of conflict, with 14 percent saying they have been harassed because of their political views.
Respondents were also harassed due to race (8 percent), physical appearance (9 percent) or gender (8 percent).
Of those who said they were the subject of harassment, only 13 percent say they have stopped using a specific website due to repugnant online behavior; however, 27 percent said they refrained from posting something on a given site after witnessing the harassment of others.
“Yet even as harassment permeates many users’ online interactions, the public offers conflicting views on how best to address this issue,” Duggan wrote.
Only 5 percent of respondents said they did not view online harassment as a problem, with one-third saying it constituted a minor problem and 62 percent saying it is a major problem.
While 79 percent of those surveyed agreed that social media websites and other online outlets need to do more to police harassment, respondents were fairly evenly divided about the best way to address the problem.
Better tools from online companies was the slight favorite with 35 percent preferring this option, but another 31 percent said legislators need to strengthen laws to punish online harassment.
Only 8 percent said they wanted increased focus and attention from law enforcement, even though 42 percent said law enforcement does not take the problem seriously enough.
Most survey respondents want to see people take more personal responsibility in the face of online harassment, with 15 percent saying peer pressure from other users was the best solution and 60 percent saying bystanders witnessing harassment should play a major role in abating it.
The number of people who consider online harassment a problem increased modestly since the last time the Pew Research Center conducted a similar survey in 2014.
Still, just over half – 56 percent – said people take offensive online content too seriously, with young men aged 17-29 being the most likely at 79 percent to say offensive online content is not a big deal.
Gender does play into perception of online harassment, according to the survey, with 70 percent of women saying online harassment is a major problem, and only 54 percent of men saying the same.
Men generally feel it’s more important to be able to speak your mind on the internet as opposed to feeling safe and comfortable (56 percent to 43 percent). For women, feeling safe was more important than free speech (63 percent to 36 percent).
Women, who report more online harassment of a sexual nature than men, are also more likely to say recourse to more robust laws is the best way to combat the problem, whereas men think having better tools and better policing from online companies is the better approach.