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'Just kidding' doesn't make online slurs OK

21 November 2013, 15:30

Washington - In a shift in attitude, most young Americans now say it's wrong to use racist or sexist slurs online, even if you're just kidding. But when they see them, they don't take much personal offence.

A majority of teens and young adults who use the internet say they at least sometimes see derogatory words and images targeting various groups. They often dismiss that stuff as just joking around, not meant to be hurtful, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research and MTV.

Americans ages 14 to 24 say people who are overweight are the most frequent target, followed by gay people. Next in line for online abuse: blacks and women.

"I see things like that all the time," says Vito Calli, 15, Pennsylvania. "It doesn't really bother me unless they're meaning it to offend me personally."

Even then he tries to brush it off.

Calli, whose family emigrated from Argentina, says people tease him online with jokes about Hispanics, but "you can't let those things get to you".

He's typical of many young people surveyed. The majority say they aren't very offended by slurs in social media or cellphone text messages - even such inflammatory terms as "bitch" or "fag" or the racist N-word.

Yet like Calli, most think using language that insults a group of people is wrong. The high school sophomore says he has tried, with difficulty, to break his habit of calling anything uncool "gay" or "retarded".

Compared with an AP-MTV poll two years ago, young people today are more disapproving of using slurs online.

Nearly 6 in 10 say using discriminatory words or images isn't all right, even as a joke. Only about half were so disapproving in 2011.

Majority say its wrong

Now, a bare majority say it's wrong to use slurs even among friends who know you don't mean it. In the previous poll, most young people said that was OK.

But the share who come across slurs online has held steady. More than half of young users of YouTube, Facebook and gaming communities such as Xbox Live and Steam say they sometimes or often encounter biased messages on those platforms.

Why do people post or text that stuff? To be funny, according to most young people who see it. Another big reason: to be cool.

Less than a third said a major reason people use slurs is because they actually harbour hateful feelings toward the groups they are maligning.

Some slurs are taken more seriously than others. Racial insults are not that likely to be seen as hurtful, yet a strong majority of those surveyed - 6 in 10 - felt comments and images targeting transgender people or Muslims are.

Almost as likely to be viewed as mean-spirited are slurs against gays, lesbians and bisexual people, and those aimed at people who are overweight.

Maria Caprigno, who has struggled with obesity since childhood, said seeing mean images on Facebook stings. But she thinks the online world reflects the rest of US society.

"It's still socially acceptable to comment on someone's weight and what someone is eating," said Caprigno, 18, of Massachusetts.

In the poll, young people said they were less likely to ask someone to stop using hurtful language on a social networking site than face to face.

Context is crucial

Alexandria Washington, a 22-year-old graduate student from California, said she's accustomed to seeing men who wouldn't say offensive things to her in person post pictures of "half-naked women in sexual positions," followed by demeaning comments and slurs like "whore" and "ratchet".

Context is crucial, too. Demeaned groups sometimes reclaim slurs as a way of stripping the words of their power - like the feminist "Bitch" magazine or gay rights activists chanting "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!"

Jeffrey Bakken, 23, a producer at a video game company in Chicago, said the bad stuff online, especially slurs posted anonymously, shouldn't overshadow what he sees as the younger generation's stronger commitment to equal rights for minorities and gays than its elders.

"Kids were horrible before the internet existed," Bakken said. "It's just that now it's more accessible to the public eye."

The AP-NORC Center/MTV poll was conducted online 27 Sept to 7 Oct among a random national sample of 1 297 people between the ages of 14 and 24. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. Funding for the study was provided by MTV as part of "A Thin Line" campaign to stop digital abuse.

The survey was conducted by GfK using KnowledgePanel, a probability-based online panel. Respondents are recruited randomly using traditional telephone and mail sampling methods. People selected who had no internet access were given it for free.

- AP

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