New Microsoft data shows improved civility online, driven by teens

 |   Jacqueline Beauchere - Global Digital Safety Advocate

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The global Microsoft Digital Civility Index (DCI) improved in 2020, bouncing back from its lowest reading in four years, even as Covid-19 upended the world. A feeling of solidarity during the pandemic among people in some regions, as well as responsible online interactions by teenagers in particular, helped drive the index’s three-point recovery. We are releasing these findings in conjunction with international Safer Internet Day to shine a light on the need for safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions among all people.

Safer Internet Day offers people around the world an opportunity to take stock of their digital lives. For the past five years, Microsoft has used this day to advocate for what we call “digital civility” – treating everyone we interact with online with dignity and respect. In 2020, the Microsoft DCI, a measure of the tone and tenor of online interactions as reported by consumers in 32 countries, stands at 67%, an improvement of three percentage points from 2019.

This latest report marks five straight years in which Microsoft has been examining civility and online risk exposure among young people and adults. Over the past half-decade, we have polled more than 58,000 people in more than 30 countries. Like the previous four years of findings, these latest results are from “Civility, Safety and Interactions Online – 2020,” which gauged teens’ and adults’ perceptions about online life and their exposure to 21* different online risks across four categories: reputational, behavioral, sexual and personal/intrusive. The index works like a golf score: The lower the index reading (on a scale from zero to 100), the lower respondents’ risk exposure and the higher the perceived level of online civility among people in that country.

We added six geographies to this latest poll, which was conducted in April and May 2020, with Denmark, Philippines, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and Thailand being surveyed for the first time. Australia was included again after last appearing in 2017. Among these newly added or re-added geographies, Taiwan registered the most favorable Digital Civility Index reading, debuting at number five among the 32 geographies surveyed and registering a DCI of 61%. That is six percentage points more favorable than the global average, and trails only Netherlands (51%), U.K. (55%), U.S. (56%) and Singapore (59%), which occupy the four top spots, respectively.

The U.K., which has held the number one spot for online civility in three of the last four years, slipped to number two in 2020, witnessing a steady climb in incivility to 55%. That is up 10 percentage points from its most favorable reading of 45%, registered in our inaugural study in 2016.

The countries with the highest online incivility readings were South Africa (81%), Russia (80%) and Mexico (76%). Two of the bottom three countries being in the 80th percentile marks an improvement since 2019 when all three of the lower-end countries saw their readings soar to 80% or higher for the first time.

Teens and Covid-19 helped to drive the global DCI improvement

According to the Digital Civility Index’s year-over-year trend by age group, teens were responsible for the noticeable improvement in online civility overall. In fact, teenagers’ DCI across all 32 geographies improved to 63% from 66% in 2019, while the DCI among adult respondents improved just one percentage point (to 71% from 72%). Moreover, teens showed more favorable scores across all four risk categories, with sexual risks dropping nearly four percentage points for young people. This decline could be tied to greater awareness among teens of serious online risks such as sextortion and online grooming for sexual or other purposes. (For more on how to prevent such risks, see these resources: sexting factsheet, online grooming factsheet.)

In addition, as we reported last July, this current study was fielded when much of the world was still coming to grips with the stay-at-home realities that accompanied the global pandemic. Still, in some regions, Covid-19 appears to have bolstered online civility. For instance, in the Asia Pacific region, 31% of respondents said civility online improved during the pandemic, as people helped and encouraged one another, displayed a greater sense of community, and came together to deal with the crisis. Globally, just over a quarter of respondents (26%) thought digital civility improved during this time, attributed largely to a collective feeling of “we’re all in this together.”

Digital Civility in the new decade

As we embrace online life in the 2020s, we again asked respondents to characterize the state of online civility in their individual geographies. For the second year in a row, these questions were asked separate and apart from the derived global Digital Civility Index, which is based on respondents’ collective replies. In the personal/intrusive category, for instance, “unwanted contact” improved markedly. This is a major development as unwanted contact has been the most common concern among respondents over the five years of this research. Specifically, more people (56%) said civility was neutral (39%) or favorable (17%) (as opposed to “bad” – 44%) in terms of unwanted contact compared to a year ago. Indeed, in 2019, online incivility stemming from unwanted contact alone scored 60%. Two of the other three risk categories, also saw declines in “bad” ratings of leading risks. (See Figure 1 for more detail; for more information about the 2020 cyberbullying results, see this post.)

Image of the ratings

Still, looking back across five years of research results, a number of the most divisive risks currently stand at all-time highs. Here are some details:

  • One in five respondents (20%), who experienced a risk online, said they were exposed to hate speech. That is up four percentage points from the start of the study in 2016 when the hate speech risk debuted with 16% of respondents having been exposed.
  • Discrimination has taken a similar path, with 15% among those encountering online risks, citing discrimination as a risk versus 10% in Year One (2016).
  • Nearly one-third of 2020 respondents (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.

Take our Digital Civility Challenge

Even though the New Year is more than a month old, it’s never too late to adopt safer habits and practices online and to foster digital civility. This year’s international Safer Internet Day theme is “Together for a Better Internet.” That can mean many things to many people, but to help realize that goal, start with our Digital Civility Challenge: four common-sense principles for safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions. The challenge tenets are:

  1. Live the Golden Rule by acting with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treat everyone you connect with online with dignity and respect
  2. Respect differences, honor diverse perspectives and, when disagreements surface, engage thoughtfully, and avoid name-calling and personal attacks
  3. Pause before replying to things you disagree with, and don’t post or send anything that could hurt someone else, damage a reputation or threaten someone’s safety
  4. Stand up for yourself and others by supporting those who are targets of online abuse or cruelty, reporting threatening activity and preserving evidence of inappropriate or unsafe behavior

We have been promoting the challenge and our digital civility actions for five years, and we will keep doing so with the longer-term aim of driving positive actions and behaviors online. We thank those technology companies and civil society organizations that have similarly adopted digital civility by implementing their own programs and initiatives rooted in a practical message of respect and kindness.

For more on digital civility, visit www.microsoft.com/digitalcivility, and if you know a teen in the U.S. who is passionate about making a difference in our online world, encourage them to apply to our 2021 Council for Digital Good, a program for young people about the state of online life today and how it might be improved tomorrow. Happy Safer Internet Day 2021 and let’s continue to come together for a better internet for all!

*Reputational – “Doxing” and damage to personal or professional reputations
  Behavioral – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying; encountering hate speech and microaggressions
  Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexting messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual intimate images, and
  Personal / Intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, experiencing discrimination, swatting, misogyny, exposure to extremist content/recruiting, or falling victim to hoaxes, scams or fraud

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