WASHINGTON — Young people immersed in the online world are encountering racist and sexist slurs and other name-calling that probably would appall their parents and teachers. And most consider it no big deal, a new poll says.
Teens and twentysomethings say in an Associated Press-MTV poll that people feel freer to use hurtful language when texting on their cellphones or posting to sites like Facebook than they would face to face. Half the young people regularly see discriminatory slang – including racial taunts and words like “slut,” “fag” and “retard” – and the majority say they aren’t very offended by it.
Those surveyed are twice as likely to say biased slurs are used to be funny as they are to think that the user is expressing hateful feelings toward a group of people. Another popular reason: to sound cool.
“They might be really serious, but you take it as a joke,” said Kervin Browner II, 20, a junior at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. He’s black but says the ugly words he sees are generally aimed at women, not minorities. And although Browner doesn’t like it, he doesn’t protest when his friends use those words on Twitter. “That’s just how it is,” he said. “People in their own minds, they think it’s cool.”
When the question is asked broadly, half of young people say using discriminatory words is wrong. But 54 percent think it’s OK to use them within their own circle of friends, because “I know we don’t mean it.” And they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.
Those who use slurs are probably offending more people than they realize, even within their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives they encounter online, especially when they identify with the group being targeted.
“It’s so derogatory to women and demeaning, it just makes you feel gross,” Lori Pletka, 22, says about “slut” and more vulgar words aimed at women. The Southeast Missouri State University senior said she regularly sees other offensive terms, too – for black people, Hispanics and gays.
But even the most inflammatory racist slur in the AP-MTV poll – the “N-word” – didn’t rouse a majority of young people. Only 44 percent said they’d be very or extremely offended if they saw someone using it online or in a text message. Thirty-five percent said it wouldn’t bother them much, including fully 26 percent who wouldn’t be offended at all.
Among African-American youth, however, 60 percent said they would be offended by seeing the N-word used against someone.
Four in 10 young people overall said they encounter that word being used against other people, with half of those seeing it often.
Other derogatory expressions are more common and accepted. Majorities see “slut” and “fag” used against others, and only about a third consider them seriously offensive.
But 41 percent of women deem “slut” deeply offensive (jumping to 65 percent if it’s used against them specifically), compared with only 28 percent of men. And 39 percent of those who are gay or know someone who is gay are seriously offended by the use of “fag,” compared with 23 percent of all others.
Demeaning something with “that’s so gay” is so common that two-thirds of young people see it used, and the majority aren’t offended at all, despite a public-service ad campaign that tried to stamp out the anti-gay slang.
A similar effort by the Special Olympics and others to persuade kids not to use “retard” hasn’t hit home with half of those surveyed, who don’t find the word even moderately bothersome. Twenty-seven percent are seriously offended, however.
Some teens just text the way they talk. Calling each other “gay” and “retarded” is routine in high school, says Robert Leader, 17, a senior in Voorhees, N.J. So teens text it, too.
But constantly seeing ugly words on their electronic screens may have a coarsening effect. “It’s caused people to loosen their boundaries on what’s not acceptable,” Leader said.
What group gets picked on the most? Those who are overweight. And slurs against the overweight are more likely to be considered intentionally hurtful than slights against others; 47 percent say these comments are meant to sting.
Muslims and gays also are seen as targets of mean-spiritedness.
In contrast, only a third say discriminatory words about blacks are most often intended as hurtful, while two-thirds think they are mostly jokes. And 75 percent think slurs against women are generally meant to be funny.
That blase attitude could lead them in trouble.
Four out of 10 young people have given little or no thought to the ease with which their electronic messages could be passed to people they didn’t expect to see them; less than a quarter have thought about it a lot. Two-thirds haven’t considered that what they type could get them in trouble with their parents or their school. But it happens.
A 13-year-old Concord, N.H., girl was suspended from school for posting on Facebook that she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her math teacher. The University of Texas Longhorns dismissed a sophomore football player for his racial slam against Barack Obama on Facebook after the 2008 presidential election. And a Harvard law student’s email to friends, suggesting that blacks might be intellectually inferior, was forwarded across the Internet, prompting the law school dean to publicly denounce it.
“People have that false sense of security that they can say whatever they want online,” said Pletka of Cape Girardeau, Mo. “Anything that you put into print can be used.”
The AP-MTV poll was conducted Aug. 18-31 and involved online interviews with 1,355 people ages 14-24 nationwide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
The poll is part of an MTV campaign, “A Thin Line,” aiming to stop the spread of digital abuse.
The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which used traditional telephone and mail sampling methods to randomly recruit respondents. People selected who had no Internet access were given it for free.