WASHINGTON — Is it ever OK to tweet that a girl's a "slut"? How about slinging offensive names for homosexuals in a post to a friend on Facebook? Or texting a racial slur? Most young people think it's all right when friends are joking around with each other, according to a new poll.
Jaded by the Internet free-for-all, teens and 20-somethings shrug off offensive words and name-calling that would probably appall their parents, teachers and future bosses. And an Associated Press-MTV poll shows they don't worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.
Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, and only about half say they are likely to ask someone using such language online to stop.
"On Twitter, everybody's getting hit hard. Nobody really cares about nobody's feelings," said Kervin Browner II, 20, a junior at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. "You never know how bad it hurts people because they don't say anything."
But young people who use racist or sexist language are probably offending more people than they realize, even in their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives, especially when they identify with the group being targeted.
"It's so derogatory to women and demeaning, it just makes you feel gross," Lori Pletka, 22, says about "slut" and more vulgar words aimed at women. The Southeast Missouri State University senior said other terms regularly offend her online, too — slurs for black people, Hispanics, and gays or lesbians.
Fifty-five percent of those surveyed say they see people being mean to others on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. And 51 percent encounter discriminatory words or images on those sites.
But they mostly write off the slurs as jokes or attempts to act cool. Fifty-seven percent say "trying to be funny" is a big reason people use discriminatory language online. About half that many say a big reason is that people "really hold hateful feelings about the group."
That may be why even the most inflammatory racist slur in the AP-MTV poll — the "N-word" — didn't rouse a majority of young people. Only 44 percent said they'd be very or extremely offended if they saw someone using it online or in a text message. Thirty-five percent said it wouldn't bother them much, including fully 26 percent who wouldn't be offended at all.
Among African-American youth, however, 60 percent said they would be offended by seeing the N-word used against other people.
Four in 10 young people overall said they encounter that word being used against other people, with half of those seeing it often.
Other derogatory expressions are more common and accepted. Majorities see "slut" and "fag" used against others, and only about a third consider them seriously offensive.
But 41 percent of women deem "slut" deeply offensive (jumping to 65 percent if it's used against them specifically), compared with only 28 percent of men. And 39 percent of those who are gay or know someone who is gay are seriously offended by the use of "fag," compared with 23 percent of all others.
Demeaning something with "that's so gay" is so common that two-thirds of young people see it used, and the majority aren't offended at all, despite a public service ad campaign that tried to stamp out the anti-gay slang.
A similar effort to persuade kids not to use "retard" hasn't hit home with half of those surveyed, who don't find the word even moderately bothersome. Twenty-seven percent are seriously offended, however.
Some teens just text the way they talk. Calling each other "gay" and "retarded" is routine in high school, says Robert Leader, 17, a senior in Voorhees, N.J. So teens text it, too.
But constantly seeing ugly words on their electronic screens may have a coarsening effect. "It's caused people to loosen their boundaries on what's not acceptable," Leader said.
What group gets picked on the most? Those who are overweight.
And slurs against the overweight are more likely to be considered intentionally hurtful than slights against others; 47 percent say these comments are meant to sting.
Muslims and gays also are seen as targets of mean-spiritedness.
In contrast, only a third say discriminatory words about blacks are most often intended as hurtful, while two-thirds think they are mostly jokes. And 75 percent think slurs against women are generally meant to be funny.
It's OK to use discriminatory language within their own circle of friends, 54 percent of young people say, because "I know we don't mean it." But if the question is put in a wider context, they lean the other way, saying 51-46 that such language is always wrong.
Yet four out of 10 young people have given little or no thought to the ease with which their electronic messages could be passed to people they didn't expect to see them; less than a quarter have thought about it a lot.
Two-thirds haven't considered that what they type could get them in trouble with their parents or their school. But it happens.
A 13-year-old Concord, N.H., girl was suspended from school for posting on Facebook that she wished Osama bin Laden had killed her math teacher. The University of Texas Longhorns dismissed a sophomore football player for his racial slam against Barack Obama on Facebook after the 2008 presidential election. And a Harvard law student's email to friends, suggesting that blacks might be intellectually inferior, was forwarded across the Internet, prompting the law school dean to publicly denounce it.
"People have that false sense of security that they can say whatever they want online," said Pletka of Cape Girardeau, Mo. "Anything that you put into print can be used."
The AP-MTV poll was conducted Aug. 18-31 and involved online interviews with 1,355 people ages 14-24 nationwide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
The poll is part of an MTV campaign, "A Thin Line," aiming to stop the spread of digital abuse.
The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which used traditional telephone and mail sampling methods to randomly recruit respondents. People selected who had no Internet access were given it for free.