Microsoft’s Jacqueline Beauchere explains the research to Larry Magid
For the past five years, Microsoft has conducted a global research study on digital civility and online risk about young people and adults.
The results of the latest survey, conducted in April and May of 2020, were released on Safer Internet Day. The sample size was just over 16,000 people.
The survey asked people in 32 countries about their online experiences and how they handled them. It included 21 online risks broken down by four categories: reputational, behavioral, sexual and personal/intrusive. Questions included whether people were contacted online without their permission or consent, bullied or harassed online, received unwanted sexual advances or had their personal or work reputation attacked.
Like all surveys, the data reflect people’s perceptions or personal experiences and may or may not correlate with actual risk statistics, which, of course, are difficult to measure. Still, it provides valuable insights into how people around the world are feeling about their online risks, which is itself an important metric.
The study was led by Microsoft’s Global Digital Safety Advocate Jacqueline Beauchere, who, in an interview, said that the purpose of the research is to “get a line into and gauge what people are doing online in terms of how they’re behaving, how they’re being treated, how they’re treating others, and how we could all make interactions online safer, healthier, more respectful, more empathetic.”
The good news
The results were summarized into what Microsoft calls a Digital Civility Index (DCI), which is based on the percentage of people who say they’ve been exposed to a risk. It’s like a golf score — the lower the better. Overall, the results were promising. The DCI went from 70 in 2019, the all-time worst score, down to 67 in 2020. What that means is, that in 2020, 67% of the people surveyed said they had fallen victim to some kind of risk online. Although the year-to-year improvement is modest, it’s a significant step in the right direction, and it’s worth noting that the data were collected during the pandemic, when much of the world was on lockdown and people in many countries were spending far more time online.
Globally, 26% of the respondents thought digital civility improved during this period of the pandemic, which Beauchere attributes “largely to a collective feeling of ‘we’re all in this together.’” Other positive results were a marked reduction in people reporting “unwanted contact.” In 2019, 60% said unwanted contact was “bad,” compared with 44% in 2020. The percentage of people who reported having their work or personal reputation attacked went from 51% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.
Teens doing better
The best news was among teens, where the DCI went from 66% in 2019 to 63% in 2020 with a reduction in all categories of risk. This compares with adults, who came down only 1 point from 72% in 2019 to 71% in 2020. Overall, 36% of teens rated online civility as good, compared to 31% of adults. Teens showed more favorable scores across all four risk categories, with sexual risks dropping nearly four percentage points for young people. The teen improvement is what drove the overall index in a good direction.
The improvement among teens doesn’t surprise me. Although we need more research to know why, my anecdotal observation is that many teens have a better respect for safety, privacy and civility than many adults. When we founded ConnectSafely in 2005, we focused on teens as the most vulnerable population. We still have materials for teens and their parents, but we now also offer resources for seniors as well as younger adults, including a soon-to-be-published guide for safe online dating.
The not-so-good news
When it comes to long-term trends, there were some setbacks in the areas of hate and division. Hate speech is up 4% compared with 2016, when the study began. Discrimination was at 15% compared with 10% in 2016. These are at “all-times highs from this research,” said Beauchere. Microsoft didn’t speculate as to why, but I have my theories based on the political climate during this period, not just in the United States but in other countries as well.
There was also an increase in cybercrime. Microsoft reported that nearly a third (31%) said they had fallen prey to hoaxes, scams or online fraud, up from a low of 28% when this risk was added in 2017.
Looking for some good teens
In addition to its research, Microsoft is taking an advocacy position with its Digital Civility Challenge. “It basically has four tenets,” said Beauchere. “We’re asking people to commit to a pledge to live the golden rule online, and treat others as we’d like to be treated. Respect differences, pause before replying. So if there’s something out there that makes you unsettled, something that you disagree with, don’t just lash out, but take a minute to digest it, come at the debate or the discussion in a constructive and productive way.” She also advocates for people to “stand up for yourself and for others online,” as long as “it’s safe and prudent to do so.”
The company is also revising its Council for Digital Good with teens from across the United States to talk about hate online, violent extremism, sexual risks and other topics. Teens can apply until March 1 at tinyurl.com/good-council.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization which has received financial support from Microsoft and other tech companies.