Online Civility and Safety Improved in 2021, But Only for Men

Microsoft's annual study noted that females experienced almost 60% of all risks reported in 2021, an all-time high

A blond woman staring at a tablet in a dark room. Online behavior was worse for women in 2021 over any other year, according to a new Microsoft study.
Toxic online behavior against women has increased, per a Microsoft study.
Guido Mieth/Getty

“Online civility improved in past year and is the best it’s been since 2016, new Microsoft research shows.”

Well, yes, that’s a nice headline for Microsoft, which was touting the latest results from “Civility, Safety and Interaction Online – 2022,” its sixth annual study.

The problem? While that claim is true for teenage boys and male respondents overall, online civility and associated risks actually got worse for teen girls and women respondents.

The Microsoft survey is conducted in 22 countries and polls teens (aged 13-17) and adults (aged 18-74) about their exposure to 21 online risks across four categories (reputational, behavioral, sexual and personal/intrusive), their experiences of life online (including during the pandemic) and how interactions in those areas impacted their perception of online civility. All of this is used to create a Digital Civility Index (DCI) score — and the lower number, the better.

This year’s score of 65% was the best since the survey started in 2016. While teen boys saw a 5% decrease in trolling and unwanted sexting, and a 3% decrease in hate speech compared to last year’s results, females experienced almost 60% of all risks reported in 2021, an all-time high. They were also more likely to have experienced “consequences, worry or pain due to being treated uncivilly.”

As pointed out, it’s not a surprise that more online abuse is directed toward women than men. As they note, 70% of the people that are stalked online are women, whereas 80% of the defendants in cyberstalking cases are male.

Some other takeaways from the report:

  • On average, females scored eight points higher on severe to unbearable pain compared to males.
  • Teen girls and women are significantly more likely to lose trust in others online, have lowered self-esteem and lose sleep.
  • Since 2020, there was a nine-point increase among females who said experiences online were worse due to the pandemic (for males, it was a three-point increase).
  • Female respondents reported more instances of unwanted sexual attention during the pandemic and with an increase twice as large as males.
  • Only 42% of female respondents reported feeling confident in their ability to manage online risks, 11 points lower than males.

As for solutions? Noting that “access to quality data on gender is sometimes hard to come by,” Microsoft for the first time made its data for this digital civility project public. Within the study, female respondents “more strongly believed in addressing the problems of online risks including education, reducing the ability to post anonymously, and policing of social media platforms.” Which is a good plan — and one men definitely need to get on board with.

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