Cyber-violence aggressors usually keep a safe distance from their targets, avoiding retaliation. The Internet gives the perfect platform for someone to inflict maximum psychological harm on another at the lowest personal risk; therefore, the Internet is an ideal environment for indirect aggression (Cho and DioGuardi 2020). The current work investigated TFSV and its related factors among Egyptian females before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the lockdown state that required users to use more Internet services for more hours, authors expected that harassment during a pandemic would grow. This is the first study to explore how the current COVID-19 pandemic affected digital harassment to the best of our knowledge.
The rising usage of social media platforms has resulted in new online aggression and violence forms. According to some studies, cyberbullying and harassment, such as threatening or sexual messages conveyed via social media, are more frequent among most populations (Peterson and Densley, 2017; Liu et al. 2019). The scientific fields of criminology, psychology, and sociology, all concerned with violent conduct, have produced very little research on the prevalence of causation of various forms of cyber violence (Brown 2015).
The current study revealed that almost half (n = 283, 50.3%) of the female participants were subjected to digital harassment. This result is slightly close to that found by Hassan et al. in Egypt (41.6%) (Hassan et al. 2020) and by the Hamara Study (40%) in Pakistan (Foundation, D. R. 2017). However, it is far greater than what women in the European Union (Rights, E. U. A. f. F 2014) and Canada (Canada 2019) claim (10% and 20% respectively).
Our participants reported smartphones as the most used device for Internet access (98.2), which is greater than previous studies performed in Canada (72.4%) (Snaychuk and O'Neill 2020) and Pakistan (48%). (Foundation, D. R. 2017) This result may explain the higher levels of reported harassment than the other studies, as smartphones are easily portable devices allowing for more Internet access anywhere and anytime, together with the many social media websites and communication apps that could be downloaded regularly than other devices (Oksman and Turtiainen 2004).
It was revealed in our study that working women spent much more hours on the Internet during the COVID-19 epidemic than before (P < 0.001), and working women spent much more hours on the Internet than non-working women before and during the pandemic (P = 0.047 and 0.042, respectively). This finding accords with what was proclaimed by the United Nations (UN); that millions of females had to use video conferencing frequently, or even daily, for their work purposes (UN Women 2020b). The pandemic and lockdown measures have increased Internet access between 50% and 70% for work, education, and social activities, whereas those lacking digital skills are more prone to cyber violence. (UN Women 2020a).
In the current research, the females’ perception for the definition of digital harassment, misusing someone’s online data, including photos and posts, was the most popular reply by the majority (about 75%), while calling someone offensive and abusive things in the comments sections of Facebook posts or websites was the least one; accounting for 44.5%. Responding to other forms of harassment varies from 50% to about 64% by the studied population.
This significant variation in perceiving digital harassment is in line with the previous studies in the USA (Duggan 2017) and Pakistan (Foundation, D. R. 2017), showing that females in different countries and with different cultures lack the knowledge and awareness regarding this issue. They might realize many improper online behaviors as acceptable because they are abundant in their communities, which need deep investigation and intervention.
Most of our participants (about 80%) reported social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) as the platform to become prone to digital harassment. While this result conforms with that reported previously in Egypt, about three-quarters of the females stated social media as the most common platform for digital harassment (Hassan et al. 2020). This finding is considerably more significant than Pakistan’s results for the same media platforms (50%) (Foundation, D. R. 2017).
Despite the inconsistent results in these different studies, the participants agreed upon considering social media as the worst platform, subjecting them to digital harassment. This result is incongruent with what was mentioned in the Pew research 2017 that social media seemed to be a fertile ground for digital harassment (Duggan 2017). Consistent with earlier studies in the USA (Duggan 2017; Finn 2004) and Egypt (Hassan et al. 2020), the perpetrator was unknown to most of our participants, a matter mainly facilitated by the anonymity nature allowed by the Internet.
On the other hand, only 3.9% of the harassed females in our study reported the action to any law agency, a result that adheres to what mentioned in the Pakistani and UN studies that most of the females have a sense of fragility in being capable, or even have the knowledge, of reacting to the harassment (Foundation, D. R. 2017; UN Women 2020a). Other reasons might be attributed to the judgmental nature of the community that could blame the harassed female rather than the perpetrator and the fear that reporting the incident might smudge their reputation.
The current work revealed that online sexual harassment and cyber-stalking were the most common forms of digital harassment stated by females, whether before or after the COVID-19 pandemic (89.4% and 80.9%, respectively). Likewise, other studies conducted among Egyptian and Canadian females before the pandemic revealed the same result of being the most frequently experienced form of digital harassment (Hassan et al. 2020; Snaychuk and O'Neill 2020).
On comparing different forms of harassment before and during the pandemic, surprisingly, there was a statistically significant reduction in some forms of harassment. Considering the increased Internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was unexpected. This might be explained by religious fear, and the sense of impending death as nearly every family had heard about a fatal outcome of a known COVID-19 infection case, or even due to financial difficulties that directed their scope of using the Internet to seek work not to spend time only as they used to do before the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings were in accordance with the results reported by Rigoli F. in his work studying the link between the COVID-19 pandemic and religious beliefs (Rigoli 2020). COVID-19 pandemic is a major global stressful condition that affects the vast majority of the human population. Research has observed that, when experiencing distressing situations, some people manifest increased religious conviction, and many studies have raised the possibility that increasing religious commitment represents a strategy to cope with stress (Hart and Koenig 2020).
Hawdon et al. reported that cyber victimization is more dependent on the type and cyberspace of online activities that allow access to what they call “dangerous virtual spaces.” This increase can be caused by more insecure online spaces, not online time (Hawdon et al. 2020). Another explanation is that persons who have previously been harassed frequently take active precautions to protect themselves against further online harassment, and they leave the cyberspaces where they were exposed to cyberbullying and harassment (Duggan 2017).
On investigating the relationship between sociodemographic characteristics and digital harassment, the mean age for harassment was about 29 years. Similar results were detected in Europe and the USA, where the risk of victimization was highest among young females aged between 18 and 29 years (Duggan 2017; UN Women 2020a). The current study revealed that divorced females working in non-governmental sectors experienced harassment more significantly than others. On the other hand, nationality, education, and time spent on the Internet had no significant relation to digital harassment. Hassan et al. further showed that neither education, employment, nor the daily use of the Internet had any significance in cyber harassment (Hassan et al. 2020). However, this was in discordance with others that time spent on the Internet was positively associated with more exposure to online harassment (Aletky 2001; Lindsay and Krysik 2012; Nasi et al. 2014; and Arafa and Senosy 2017). These irreconcilable findings may be related to the different age groups of the study population, as most of these studies were on university students where most of their Internet activities are on social media sites that appeared to be the most platform prone to harassment.