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UEL leads on first comprehensive review of adult online hate, harassment and abuse

University of East London academics lead on report which finds that online abuse and harm is on the rise 

A new report led by the University of East London states that nearly half of adult internet users say they were exposed to hateful content in the past year. 

This report, which is the first comprehensive review of evidence of adult harassment, hate and abuse in the UK, has just been published.  The aim of the report is to make it easier for people to access high-quality evidence on the increasing incidence and impact of online harms for adults. 

This report presents findings from a collaborative study undertaken by the University of East London (UEL) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Entitled Adult Online Hate, Harassment and Abuse: A rapid evidence assessment it describes the findings from a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of the evidence base in relation to adult online safety.

It was compiled in response to the challenge that there are many good studies of incidence, impact and effect. However, on an individual level these are often difficult to track down or interrelate and do not give the whole picture of the serious impact of these harms. The unique features of online hate are the volume, reach, instantaneousness, and permanency of the abuse and the real fear of it manifesting offline. 

UEL's Professor Julia Davidson, the lead investigator, said, “The research suggests that there has been an increase in online harassment, bullying, abuse, hate speech and other forms of harm.  The findings confirm that distressing content and activity online is increasing. This is becoming a critical issue particularly as nearly all adults aged 16 to 54 are now online and three quarters of adults use a smartphone. There is a lack of research in the UK exploring adult online harms and it is essential for policy and practice to be evidence based.”

Issues addressed in the report include cyber bullying, trolling, cyberstalking, revenge porn and image based abuse, hate crime, hate speech, hate incidents and online harassment.  The nature, scope and impact of each type of harm is reviewed.  

Considering various pieces of documentation and research, the report considers the most recent evidence of the:  

  • Prevalence of harms
  • Groups (protected characteristics) most exposed to harm
  • Impact of harms
  • Areas in which further research is needed. 

The research was undertaken on behalf of the UK Council for Internet Safety Evidence Group and commissioned by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). This REA focuses on exploring internet safety issues amongst adults, given the expansion of the remit of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) to include adults in the context of the new Internet Safety Strategy and Online Harms White Paper (2019).

Key findings of studies considered in the report include: 

  • Nearly half of adult internet users say they were exposed to hateful content in the past year (Ofcom 2018). 
  • 55 per cent of survey respondents said they had seen something that upset or offended them on social media or messaging sites, an 11 per cent increase from 2016 (Ofcom 2018). 
  • The number of reported harassment offences in the UK has risen considerably between 2014 and 2015. Academic studies report varying rates of cyberstalking, ranging from 9% to 46.7%.
  • Number of reports from certain age groups (16-24; 25-34) encountering hateful content significantly increased in 2017, whilst reports from other age groups (55-64; 65-74; 75+) significantly decreased.
  • Two in five internet users who have seen something hateful online in the past 12 months say they did something about it.
  • Social media is the most common platform for online harassment (Cybersmile 2017).
  • Cyberstalking causes victims extreme anxiety resulting in them substantially changing aspects of their lives. 
  • Race or ethnicity is the protected characteristic that provokes the most online hate, followed by sexual orientation, religion, disability and transgender status. 

Professor Sonia Livingstone from LSE and member of the research team, said, “Although public recognition of online harms to adults has lagged behind those experienced by children, our review calls attention to findings of vulnerability across the whole population. This high quality evidence demonstrates the impact of these harms. Individuals experiencing online harassment and abuse experience mental and emotion distress that can have terrible consequences on their finances, relationships, homes and reputations.”
 
This research is an extremely important step forward in presenting existing research around adult online harm which is useful for specialists, academics, researchers and stakeholders across the sector.

Read the report