Iowa State researcher joins effort to prevent online harassment

Hands typing on a keyboard

AMES, Iowa – The prevalence of online harassment is well documented. In the U.S. alone, approximately 140 million people were affected by online harassment, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study.

While it is something many people have experienced or witnessed, an Iowa State University researcher says there’s a lot we don’t know about online harassment, which makes it difficult to effectively address the problem. That’s why Rey Junco, an associate professor in ISU’s School of Education, is part of a team of researchers working with Google Jigsaw to understand why people engage in online harassment, the personal and social costs and how best to intervene and prevent it from happening.

Defining online harassment is part of the challenge. Junco says there are several different avenues to explore – cyberbullying, racial slurs or sexually-charged comments. It also happens in a variety of online venues – discussion forums, news websites, video games and social media sites. To study the problem, researchers also need to connect with people who don’t engage or have left social media because of harassment, but finding and reaching those people isn’t easy, Junco said.   

The team’s goal is to educate and influence harassment policies through research. Junco says too often schools, news organizations or police overreact to harassment issues and develop broad policies that do more harm than good. Media websites shutting down comment sections or universities trying to ban access to specific social media sites are just a couple of examples.

“Harassment happens on a scale that makes it difficult for institutions to limit the forums and avenues where the harassment takes place,” Junco said. “A policy that bans negative comments about women does nothing to address the underlying issues that lead to the harassment. You also have to balance people’s rights of free speech.”

Junco says the team also wants to dispel some of the myths or beliefs often associated with online harassment. The “online disinhibition effect” is commonly used as an explanation for why people bully or torment others online, he said. As the name suggests, people are less inhibited online and more likely to say something with a keyboard that they wouldn’t say in a face-to-face situation.

But if that were true, Junco says everyone would engage in online harassment. As an example, he says most people can think of a time when they wanted to write or started to write an angry email, but after waiting a few minutes, they deleted the message. Junco also points out the potential positive effects of online disinhibition. He says it gives some people the courage to speak up against harassment and defend others. 

Encouraging people to speak up and intervene is the best way to deal with online harassment, Junco said. He would also like to see social media platforms take a bolder approach to dealing with harassment and harassment reporting.

Crossing the line from private to public

Junco’s contributions to the group focus specifically on sexting – what he says can be a normal expression of sexual identity and development. It becomes a problem when people share intimate images that were intended to be private. In some cases, it’s led to criminal charges and in other situations generated debate over what is considered inappropriate.  

Junco wants to understand why some people cross that line, and how empathy, impulsiveness and attitudes toward women may influence those actions. He says it’s almost exclusively teenage boys and men sharing these private images, and he thinks a lack of empathy may explain this behavior.

“Men are not taught empathy, nor are they encouraged to share their feelings or show concern for others, because of sociocultural values and mores about how men should act,” Junco said. “Therefore, when there is an issue, like a breakup, they retaliate in a way that's easy, instead of focusing on processing their negative emotions about the breakup.”

Junco is still analyzing data from his study and hopes to publish the results by late 2017.