WASHINGTON – In a shift in attitude, most young people 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 offense.
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 Center 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, of Reading, Pa. "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 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.
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 harbor hateful feelings toward the groups they are maligning.
"Most of the time they're just joking around, or talking about a celebrity," Jeff Hitchins, a white 24-year-old in Springfield, Pa., said about the insulting references to blacks, women and gays that he encounters on the Vine and Instagram image-sharing sites. "Hate speech is becoming so commonplace, you forget where the words are coming from, and they actually hurt people without even realizing it."
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 U.S. society.
"It's still socially acceptable to comment on someone's weight and what someone is eating," said Caprigno, 18, of Norwood, Mass. "We need to change that about our culture before people realize posting stuff like that online is going to be offensive to someone."
Erick Fernandez of West New York, N.J., says what people share online reflects the influence of song lyrics and music videos and movies.
Fernandez, 22, said he was "probably very loose" about that himself before he was chosen for a diversity summer camp in high school that explained why phrases like "That's so gay" are hurtful. Now a college student, he routinely sees insulting language for women and people of color bandied about online.
"I try to call some of my friends out on it but it's really to no avail," Fernandez said. "They brush it off and five minutes later something else will come out. Why even bother?"
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.
Alexandria Washington 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."
"They'll post anything online, but in person it's a whole different story," said Washington, 22, a graduate student in Tallahassee, Fla.
There seems to be a desensitizing effect. Those who report more exposure to discriminatory images and words online are less likely to say it's wrong than those who rarely or never encounter it.
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!"
Washington, who is African-American, said on most days she doesn't come across racial slurs on social media. But she stumbles upon bigoted words when race is in the news, such as surrounding President Barack Obama's re-election, and finds them hurtful in that serious context.
Likewise, Calli, the high school student originally from Argentina, said he could stomach almost any name-calling but gets upset when someone uses a falsehood to denigrate immigrants.
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 Sept. 27-Oct. 7 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.