Harassment of women online is at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society”, with women under 30 particularly vulnerable, according to the creators of a new Australian study.
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Nearly half the 1,000 respondents in the research by the digital security firm Norton had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online. Among women under 30, the incidence was 76%.
Harassment ranged from unwanted contact, trolling, and cyberbullying to sexual harassment and threats of rape and death. Women under 30 were overrepresented in every category.
One in seven – and one in four women aged under 30 – had received general threats of physical violence. Almost one in ten women under 30 had experienced revenge porn and/or “sextortion”.
The online quantitative survey was carried out with 1,053 women in Australia aged 18 and over in February this year.
Similar research was done on men’s experience of harassment online, but those findings were held off in order to publicise International Women’s Day, as well as the fact that the issue is disproportionately experienced by women.
Researchers found that women received twice as many death threats and threats of sexual violence as men.
One in four lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who had suffered serious harassment online said their sexual orientation had been the target. One in five online harassment cases attacked a woman’s physical appearance.
The findings suggested that women believed that online abuse was a growing problem and felt powerless to act over it.
Seventy per cent of women said online harassment was a serious problem in 2016 and 60% said that it was getting worse. More than half the women surveyed felt the police needed to start taking victims seriously.
But 38% of those who had experienced online harassment chose to ignore it, and only 10% reported it to police.
Melissa Dempsey, senior director for the Asia Pacific region of Norton by Symantec, said the findings showed a need for greater awareness and collaboration between the IT industry and law enforcement agencies – before online harassment became “an established norm in our digital society”.
Harassment is overwhelmingly taking place on social media, which facilitates 66% of cases – three times as many as by email (22%) or text (17%). Twenty-seven per cent of the women surveyed changed the privacy settings of their accounts after their experience.
The findings will likely fuel the argument that social networks such as Twitter and Facebook need to take greater responsibility for harassment on their platforms.
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Twitter announced in February a renewed push to tackle abuse and threats made on the network. Around the same time, Facebook launched a tool to offer support to users perceived to be at risk of suicide.
Tara Moss, a Canadian-Australian author and advocate who partnered with Norton to help design the survey, said online abuse was just one form of violence against women, all of which needed to be addressed.
With nearly 96,000 followers on Twitter, she said she had often been the target of abuse online, and received a spike in threats when she was made a patron of the Full Stop Foundation, tackling rape and sexual violence.
Georgie Harman, the chief execution of beyondblue, a long-time partner with Norton, said the mental health organisation’s work was increasingly being carried out digitally.
She was especially concerned by figures that more than one in five (22%) of respondents who had experienced online harassment felt depressed and that 5% felt suicidal.
Harman said 65% of contact made to beyondblue was by women.
The Norton study coincides with a separate survey of about 1,000 women working in the Australian media, which found that more than 40% had been harassed on social media in the course of their work.
The survey by Women in Media, an advocacy group supported by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, found that 41% said they had been harassed, bullied or trolled on social media while engaging with audiences.
Several were silenced or changed career as a result of this harassment, which ranged included death threats and stalking. Sixty per cent of respondents agreed that it was more likely to be directed at women than men.
Only 16% of respondents were aware of their employer’s strategies to deal with threats on social media.