How can we stem the tide of online harassment and abuse?

Digital harassment is not only an issue affecting children and teenagers. shutterstock

Young adults aged 18 to 24 are more likely than older Australians to experience some forms of digital harassment and abuse, according to new research from RMIT and La Trobe universities.

The research surveyed 3000 Australian adults aged 18 to 54 about their experiences of online and mobile-based harassment and abuse. More than 30 interviews were conducted with law enforcement, legal services and domestic and sexual violence services about system responses.

Overall, women and men were just as likely to report experiencing any form of digital harassment and abuse. However, the nature and impacts of these online harms differed significantly by gender and age. So what can we do?

Key findings

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (62.3%) reported experiencing some form of digital harassment and abuse. One in five women overall, and two in five women aged 18 to 19 (37%), reported that someone had sexually harassed them.

Men reported harassment from male and female perpetrators equally. Women, however, were much more likely to be harassed by male perpetrators.

One in ten said that a nude or semi-nude image of them was sent on to others without their permission.

Women (56%) were significantly more likely than men (36%) to be “moderately”, “very”, or “extremely” upset by the digital harassment, and to have left a site or turned off their device as a result of the experience.

Most surveys to date have focused on children and young people’s online experiences, such as cyberbullying. This data shows that digital harassment and abuse is a very common experience for Australian adults too.

From online ‘incivility’ to harassment and abuse

Both the mainstream media and scholarly research have devoted increasing attention to “online incivility”. This term describes the common observation that people say and do things under the distance and anonymity of the internet that they might never do in person. Incivility is a helpful term for distinguishing verbally offensive or aggressive behaviours from more harmful, harassing and abusive behaviours.

“Offensive language” was the most common harassing behaviour reported by participants in our study. However, more concerning experiences were included such as sexual harassment and offensive and degrading comments directed at race, gender or sexuality.

One in three reported receiving unwanted sexually explicit images, comments, emails or text messages. These ranged from unwanted sexually explicit advertising and “spam” through to the more troubling unwanted “dick pics” and repeated sexual requests – which many women described receiving regularly in online dating and social applications.

One in six reported experiencing harassment based on their race, gender or sexuality. But this was a particularly common experience for younger adults: 38% of young women aged 18 to 19 reported experiencing gender-based harassment, while the same proportion of young men experienced offensive or degrading content about their sexuality or sexual identity.

Sexuality-based harassment was also significantly more common for participants identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Some of these forms of sexual and sexuality-based harassment would be unlawful if they occurred in other parts of public life. But in the online public, many existing laws do not apply, or are difficult to enforce. This allows these forms of cyberhate to flourish, and its impacts on victims to be ignored.

Police, legal services and sexual and domestic violence services are also reporting that technologies are increasingly being used as tools to enable violence, harassment and abuse in the context of domestic violence, cyberstalking and “revenge pornography”.

We’ve written previously about the ways that sexual images in particular are being used as tools of abuse – and not “just revenge”. Our finding that one in ten Australians has experienced a nude or semi-nude image of them being sent on to others without their permission shows the potential spread of these harms.

People say and do things under the distance and anonymity of the internet that they might never do in person. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Beyond the criminal law

Some of these abuses can be addressed through increasing awareness and use of existing laws. The Commonwealth Criminal Code, for example, includes offences such as using a communications service – whether a landline or mobile phone, as well as the internet – to threaten, menace or harass a person, as well as “causing offence”.

In all Australian states and territories, “cyberstalking” behaviours – where they are part of a repeated set of actions and cause a person to feel fear – are also crimes. These laws, in addition to civil (protection or intervention) orders, can be used to respond and protect victims of stalking and partner violence in particular.

Reform is needed to ensure that victims of image-based abuses such as “revenge pornography” do not fall through the justice gap.

A one-off harassing or abusive comment can be unpleasant or offensive, but not always cause the victim distress. One of the challenges of online public space is that a single person can be subjected to a tidal wave of such behaviours by multiple harassers over time. As such, a legal response can be difficult.

Improving responses by service providers and site administrators, and taking action when users make complaints, is a step in the right direction. These “corporate bystanders” should take proactive steps to create meaningful and enforceable community standards.

Young adults, women and non-heterosexuals are significantly more likely to experience harassing and abusive behaviours. This can have the effect of exclusion from equal participation in our online society. When so much of our lives is infused with online participation, we should not and cannot tolerate that exclusion.

We can all step in as active bystanders to challenge harassment and abuse. We can do this by reporting community standards violations, speaking up to challenge the abusive behaviours of others, and stepping in to express support for victims.


If you have experienced sexual, gender and/or sexuality-based digital harassment or abuse and would like to participate in this research, visit techandme.com.au to find out more.

If you would like to seek support or advice about your experiences of harassment, stalking or violence call 1800 RESPECT, the Men’s Referral Service, or Lifeline.

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