Millennials encounter the most risk online, new Microsoft research shows

Young man using a laptop

Millennials around the world — those between the ages of 18 and 34 — are exposed to the highest levels of online risk and suffer the most severe consequences from those risks when compared to other age groups, a new Microsoft study shows. In addition, once millennials have had a negative experience online, more so than other age groups they lose trust in others online and off; they become stressed, depressed, lose sleep or lose a friend; and they worry that the hurtful experience will happen again.

These results are from Microsoft’s latest research into digital civility: how people are being treated online and how they are treating others, as well as our effort to encourage safer and healthier online interactions among all people. The study, “Civility, Safety and Interaction Online — 2018,” will be released on international Safer Internet Day in February, and polled teens and adults in 22 countries[1] about the various risks they face online.[2] This year’s survey builds on similar work done over the past two years that surveyed the same age groups. A total of 11,157 people took the latest poll.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of millennials in 22 countries said they experienced at least one of 21 different online risks. That compares to 62 percent of baby boomers (ages 50-74), 63 percent of teens (ages 13-17) and 66 percent of Generation Xers (ages 35-49). In fact, data show, on average, millennials experienced 3.4 risks of the 21 our research asked about. That compares to 2.7 risks on average for both teens and Gen Xers, and 2.2 risks on average for baby boomers. The most common online risks encountered by millennials included unwanted contact (46 percent); hoaxes, scams and fraud (34 percent); and unwanted “sext” messages (28 percent).

2018 Digital Civility Index highest for millennials

In asking people about their online risk exposure, we use their responses to calculate our Digital Civility Index (DCI), a measure of the perceived level of online civility in a given country or among a specific demographic. The index works like a golf score: the lower the reading (on a scale from zero to 100), the lower the respondents’ risk exposure and the higher the perceived level of online civility among people in that country. Among age demographics, the DCI for millennials was the highest in 2018 at 73 percent. That compares to 66 percent for Generation X, 63 percent for teens and 62 percent for baby boomers, and is 8 percentage points above the all-country average for the past two years.

‘Severe to moderate pain’ from online risks also highest among millennials

In 2016 and 2017, the DCI was unchanged at 65 percent. Given the flat reading from Year One to Year Two, in this latest study, we decided to look more closely at the consequences of the various risks and the level of associated “pain.”

Across all respondents in all age groups, more than eight in 10 (84 percent) reported pain from the online risk. For 29 percent, the pain was “mild” — tolerable or able to be ignored. “Moderate” pain caused hurt among 27 percent of respondents, while 28 percent suffered “severe” pain, defined as negatively impacting the quality of one’s life. Of that 28 percent, 8 percent reported experiencing unbearable pain that proved mentally or physically disabling.

Among age demographics, 60 percent of millennials reported moderate to severe pain from online risks, compared to 58 percent of teens, 49 percent of Gen Xers and 29 percent of baby boomers. Thirty-four percent of millennials reported severe or debilitating pain.

The good news for millennials is that more than half of millennial respondents expressed strong confidence in their ability to handle risks, and millennials were the second most likely age group to act in response to a risk (teens were the first group to act. For more on the latest preliminary teen data, see last month’s post here.) That said, 60 percent of millennials also said they did not know, or were unsure, where to find help with an online risk, and nearly half said it was difficult to find help when needed. Millennials also scored the lowest percentage of those who believed their actions were effective in managing online risks.

So, what can we take away from these findings? Across age groups and geographies, online risks are real. The pain and suffering that result from online risk exposure can be devastating. We can all improve our sense of civility and decorum online as one way of minimizing risk exposure, as well as follow-on hurt and harm. And, we can start by living by four common-sense principles online, what we call our Digital Civility Challenge. In short,

  • Live the “Golden Rule”
  • Respect differences
  • Pause before replying, and
  • Stand up for yourself and others.

There are other actions that can be taken to grow a culture of digital civility and respect, whether you run a small technology company or are a parent, an educator or a policymaker. Click here to review our suggested best practices.

We will continue to make key findings from our research available in the coming weeks, all leading up to the full and final release on Safer Internet Day 2019. Meanwhile, to learn more about digital civility, visit For more on online safety generally, visit our website; check out and share our resources; “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

[1] Countries surveyed:  Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada*, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Singapore*, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam. (* Indicates the first time this country has been included in this research.)

[2] In the latest study, the 21 risks break down as follows:

  • 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 “sext” messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention – a new risk added in this latest research, and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”), 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.

At the time of writing of this post, Jacqueline Beauchere’s title was Chief Online Safety Officer.