Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center

Definition

Cyberstalking can be defined as threatening behavior or unwanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications.  This can include email; social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr; google searches; and online directories, including others.

Overview

Cyberstalking is a relatively new phenomenon. With the decreasing expense and thereby increased availability of computers and online services, more individuals are purchasing computers and "logging onto" the Internet, making another form of communication vulnerable to abuse by stalkers.

Cyberstalkers target their victims through chat rooms, message boards, discussion forums, social networking sites, and e-mail. Cyberstalking takes many forms such as: threatening or obscene e-mail; spamming (in which a stalker sends a victim a multitude of junk e-mail); live chat harassment or flaming (online verbal abuse); leaving improper messages on message boards or in guest books; sending electronic viruses; sending unsolicited e-mail; tracing another person's computer and Internet activity, and electronic identity theft.

Similar to stalking off-line, online stalking can be a terrifying experience for victims, placing them at risk of psychological trauma, and possible physical harm. Many cyberstalking situations do evolve into off-line stalking, and a victim may experience abusive and excessive phone calls, vandalism, threatening or obscene mail, trespassing, and physical assault.

Cyberstalking and the Law

With personal information becoming readily available to an increasing number of people through the Internet and other advanced technology, state legislators are addressing the problem of stalkers who harass and threaten their victims over the World Wide Web. Stalking laws and other statutes criminalizing harassment behavior currently in effect in many states may already address this issue by making it a crime to communicate by any means with the intent to harass or alarm the victim.

States have begun to address the use of computer equipment for stalking purposes by including provisions prohibiting such activity in both harassment and anti-stalking legislation (Riveira, 1,2). A handful of states, such as Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire and New York have specifically including prohibitions against harassing electronic, computer or e-mail communications in their harassment legislation. Alaska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and more recently, California, have incorporated electronically communicated statements as conduct constituting stalking in their anti-stalking laws. A few states have both stalking and harassment statutes that criminalize threatening and unwanted electronic communications. Other states have laws other than harassment or anti-stalking statutes that prohibit misuse of computer communications and e-mail, while others have passed laws containing broad language that can be interpreted to include cyberstalking behaviors (Gregorie).

Recent federal law has addressed cyberstalking as well. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 2000, made cyberstalking a part of the federal interstate stalking statute. Other federal legislation that addresses cyberstalking has been introduced recently, but no such measures have yet been enacted. Consequently, there remains a lack of legislation at the federal level to specifically address cyberstalking, leaving the majority of legislative prohibitions against cyberstalking at the state level (Wiredpatrol.org).

If you are a Survivor of Cyberstalking

  • Survivors who are under the age of 18 should tell their parents or another adult they trust about any harassments and/or threats.
  • Experts suggest that in cases where the perpetrator is known, survivors should send the stalker a clear written warning. Specifically, survivors should communicate that the contact is unwanted, and ask the perpetrator to cease sending communications of any kind. Survivors should do this only once. Then, no matter the response, survivors should under no circumstances ever communicate with the stalker again. Survivors should save copies of this communication in both electronic and hard copy form.
  • If the harassment continues, the survivor may wish to file a complaint with the stalker's Internet service provider, as well as with their own service provider. Many Internet service providers offer tools that filter or block communications from specific individuals.
  • As soon as individuals suspect they are survivors of online harassment or cyberstalking, they should start collecting all evidence and document all contact made by the stalker. Save all e-mail, postings, or other communications in both electronic and hard-copy form. If possible, save all of the header information from e-mails and newsgroup postings. Record the dates and times of any contact with the stalker.
  • Survivors may also want to start a log of each communication explaining the situation in more detail. Survivors may want to document how the harassment is affecting their lives and what steps they have taken to stop the harassment.
  • Survivors may want to file a report with local law enforcement or contact their local prosecutor's office to see what charges, if any, can be pursued. Survivors should save copies of police reports and record all contact with law enforcement officials and the prosecutor's office.
  • Survivors who are being continually harassed may want to consider changing their e-mail address, Internet service provider, a home phone number, and should examine the possibility of using encryption software or privacy protection programs. Any local computer store can offer a variety of protective software, options and suggestions. Survivors may also want to learn how to use the filtering capabilities of email programs to block e-mails from certain addresses.
  • Finally, under no circumstances should survivors agree to meet with the perpetrator face to face to "work it out," or "talk." No contact should ever be made with the stalker. Meeting a stalker in person can be very dangerous.

Potential Effects of Cyberstalking

Just because cyberstalking does not include physical contact with the perpetrator does not mean it is not as threatening or frightening as any other type of crime. Survivors of cyberstalking often experience psychological trauma, as well as physical and emotional reactions as a result of their victimization. Some of these effects may include:

  • changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • nightmares
  • hypervigilance
  • anxiety
  • helplessness
  • fear for safety
  • shock and disbelief

Survivors experiencing these reactions and many others might consider seeking out support from friends, family and victim service professionals in order to cope with the trauma resulting from cyberstalking.

Advocates at SAPAC can provide crisis intervention and advocacy for survivors of stalking and cyberstalking as well as safety planning and referrals.