20 Jul 2016

'Gross, inappropriate stuff for no apparent reason'

9:50 am on 20 July 2016

Almost three-quarters of New Zealand women under the age of 30 have experienced some form of online harassment, according to a new study.

Online Harassment: The New Zealand Woman’s Experience, a survey of 536 women by online security company Norton, shows the emotional toll that cyber bullying and threats of physical violence, rape and death take on women in NZ.

Information from the Netsafe Online Harassment study

Information from the Netsafe Online Harassment study Photo: Graphic: Maja Burry with 123RF

Wellington Young Feminists Collective member Pollyanne Pena said the organisation frequently banned people from commenting on their Facebook page.

"I don't know what it is but there's something that attracts people and it tends to be - looking at the banned users lists - young guys to say just really like gross, inappropriate stuff for no apparent reason.

"It's not linked to anything that we post ... it's not because we're getting more traffic or anything at the moment.

"These people ... I don't know, it's like a sport to post something really derogatory on a feminist page. At the moment, we're not posting a lot and we're still getting it but when we're at the sort of peak of that, the comments can get quite personal or people can sort of try and message you directly and say, you know, hey eff you, I hope something really unpleasant happens to you."

She said it was affronting at first, but now she felt quite desensitised to it.

At the worst end of the spectrum, six percent of victims said they felt suicidal as a result.

"You try and maybe have a laugh about it and you know, debrief with a friend and that sort of thing. But yeah, it's prevalent and it happens.

"I think the only way that we're dealing with it now is the instant we see something like that, we just have to block the person from the page and that's the end of that."

While online harassment affects more young women because they are more frequent social media users, over half of all NZ women it surveyed had been affected, Norton security expert Melissa Dempsey said.

At the worst end of the spectrum, six percent of victims said they felt suicidal as a result.

The study also found the online harassment is frequently of a sexual nature. One in 10 women have experienced graphic sexual harassment, rising to nearly 1 in 5 for women under 30. Threats of sexual violence are also common experiences, the survey revealed one in seven women have been affected by general threats of physical violence including death, rape and sexual assault. This figure rose to one in four for women aged under 30.

Dempsey said the findings provided insights into the devastating implications of online harassment, many women had feelings of anger, irritation, frustration and anxiousness as a result of their online experiences.

“This survey uncovers the prevalence of harassment against women in the online world, and sheds light on the extent of the problem in our society.

“It also exposes the high emotional toll online harassment is having on New Zealand women and brings to light the uncomfortable truth that some Kiwi women are feeling violated, abused and frightened by their online experiences,” she said.

Dempsey said it wasn’t just men attacking women online.

“It’s actually really mixed so, it’s both known and unknown perpetrators and it’s a mix of men and women and again there’s no differentiation by age, culture, race or anything like that. It’s just across the board.”

But she said the data they have from surveys with men, suggested their experiences with online harassment were different.

“With women, it’s more about threats of physical violence, death and even rape, women are being exposed to a lot graphic, sexual harassment online.

“With men, it is definitely very different and it’s more orientated around privacy breaches and identity theft.”

With women, it’s more about threats of physical violence, death and even rape...

But Youthline clinical services manager Peter Shimwell said it was hard to distinguish a gap between reports of online bullying from male and females.

“Cyber bullying is certainly increasing and I would say the last few years we’ve seen lots more people contacting us, [but we] can’t really differentiate between male and female in terms of research that’s come out ... but we certainly know young people that we’re supporting are concerned about bullying, particularly in that online space.”

In the survey, one in four lesbian, bisexual and transgender women who had suffered serious harassment said their sexual orientation had been singled out.  Shimell said the sad reality was that members of the LGBTI community are often targeted through online bullying.

“Certainly, that’s not surprising given our experience.”

Despite 70 percent of New Zealand women identifying online harassment as a serious problem in 2016, more than one-third will choose to ignore it. In addition, only nine percent of women report perpetrators of the online harassment to police.

Netsafe Training and Education Specialist Lee Chisholm said the cyber safety organisation received a higher percentage of reports of personal harm from females than males.

“Anyone who is harassed or abused online needs positive support as well as practical expertise - which can be accessed through NetSafe,” he said.

The Women's Refuge, however, was cautious about the study finding such high levels of harassment.

Chief executive Ang Jury said she wanted to see another similar but wider reaching study done, to gauge the true extent of the problem.

If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.

Lifeline - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Healthline - 0800 611 116

Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz