What Is the Psychological Toll of Stalking?

New research explores the emotional costs of unwanted pursuit behavior.

Posted May 11, 2018

     “What are you going to do? Are you going to live in the dark, locked in here? Afraid to look out, answer the door, leave? Yes, he's out there, and he's clearly not going to leave you alone until one of three things happens: he hurts you and gets arrested, or he makes a mistake and gets arrested, or you stop him.” —Rachel Caine

What constitutes stalking behavior? While the #MeToo movement has brought sexual harassment and assault against women into the spotlight as never before, the question of how to deal with complaints of stalking continues to defy easy solutions.   

SpeedKingz/Shutterstock
Source: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Part of the problem stems from the lack of agreement over what constitutes stalking behavior in the first place. Despite efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recognize stalking as a form of partnership violence, laws pertaining to stalking behavior vary widely from place to place, and getting police protection is often impossible for many potential victims until too late.

Along with more blatant stalking behaviors, such as threats of physical or sexual violence,  researchers have also identified what they term unwanted pursuit behaviors (UPB), which, while creating a feeling of menace in their targets, are rarely illegal in themselves. These behaviors can include:

  • Questioning friends and family of the person targeted to gather information on whereabouts, new relationships, or friendships.
  • Appearing in places where the targeted person might be.
  • Waiting outside the target's workplace/school/home.
  • Sending or leaving unwanted gifts or letters.

Along with these in-person unwanted behaviors, stalking victims are also reporting having to deal with a sharp rise in cyberstalking activities, including:

  • Threatening to release information and/or images if the target doesn't do what the stalker wants.
  • Sending an excessive number of emails or Facebook posts, or repeatedly trying to make contact using online chat.
  • Sending threatening texts, posts, tweets, etc.

Whatever form the stalking takes, the consequences can be severe for the person targeted. Researchers have consistently shown that being stalked can produce post-traumatic stress, whether it is in-person stalking or the online equivalent. Even when dealing with cyberstalking alone, studies show that victims are far more likely  to report depressive and somatic symptoms, sleep problems, and generally lower well-being than non-victims. Victims are also far more likely to take defensive actions, such as taking time off from work or school, changing jobs or schools, and even moving away from family and friends to avoid contact with their stalker.   

A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Violence provides an in-depth look at different kinds of unwanted pursuit behaviors and how they can relate to relationship violence and post-traumatic stress. The researchers designed their study to refine existing measures of cyber- and in-person victimization, as well as to gauge how this victimization can predict interpersonal violence and psychological problems later. For the purpose of this research, Christina Dardis of Towson University and a team of co-researchers recruited 330 women, age 18 and over, from a pool of psychology undergraduates at a Midwestern university. All of the participants reported having been in one or more relationships which ended during the previous three years.  

To conceal the real purpose of the study, all participants completed an online survey titled, "What happens when your relationship ends?" Along with collecting demographic data, the survey contained items from inventories measuring:

  • "In-person" unwanted pursuit. Based on a 26-item measure used in previous studies, participants were asked how often they experienced unsolicited contact behaviors, ranging from relatively minor actions, such as "Wait outside of your home, work, or school,” to more serious examples, including "Cause harm to someone close to you or to your pet.”
  • Cyber unwanted pursuit. Based on an 18-item research instrument measuring cyber-harassment, participants were asked items such as “[Did he/she] Use web cam to monitor your activities," as well as items relating to threatening calls, emails, or posts, checking on ex-partners by using their password, excessive phone calls, emails, etc.
  • Follow-up in-person and cyber unwanted pursuit items. When participants endorsed items relating to experiencing unwanted pursuit, they were then asked to complete items describing the extent to which this harassment made them feel frightened or annoyed.
  • History of physical, sexual, or psychological victimization. Participants completed items describing different forms of abuse, with higher total scores reflecting the degree of victimization.
  • Post-traumatic abuse symptoms. Participants were asked items relating to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as measured by the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This included symptoms such as flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, and hyper-vigilance. For the purpose of the research, items focused on symptoms experienced in the past seven days.
  • Depression symptoms. Using the 20-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, participants reported on any depressive symptoms occurring in the past week. The total score was used to measure their level of overall depression.

As expected, the results showed considerable overlap between reports of unwanted in-person pursuit behavior and unwanted cyber-pursuit. Among the 59 percent of women who reported two or more examples of unwanted behaviors, most reported it occurring to them both online and in person. Victims of unwanted pursuit behavior were also more likely to report being a victim of some form of interpersonal violence, as well as experiencing depression and post-traumatic symptoms. 

The types of unwanted behavior most likely to lead to mental health issues included being sent an excessive number of texts or posts; asking mutual friends for personal information; and sending threatening messages. Interestingly, there seemed to be little difference whether these behaviors occurred in person or online. Even for participants who experienced cyber-stalking alone, excessive or threatening messages were strongly linked to the later development of post-traumatic or depressive symptoms.

For in-person unwanted pursuit behavior, the two factors that seemed to have the greatest emotional impact on women were indications of active pursuit (either following the person targeted or showing up unexpectedly) and aggression (threatening or committing actual violence towards the target, her property, or those close to her). As for unwanted cyber-pursuit, participants were most likely to report emotional distress after receiving an excessive number of contacts or posts, or when pursuers made use of active surveillance or GPS and/or posted revealing images of the target online. 

While previous studies have already shown the negative impact of in-person and cyber-stalking on targeted women, these results go further in showing the cumulative impact of unwanted behaviors that have been under-researched up to now. Though the participants in this study were young, undergraduate women from a single university, the traumatic impact of this kind of post-relationship pursuit behavior is very similar to what has been reported in other studies on stalking and harassment.

Along with recognizing the study's limitations, Dardis and her co-authors acknowledge that more research is needed to study the long-term consequences of in-person and cyber-harassment as well as the kind of harassing behavior reported  by other population groups including males and females in other age groups.

Still, these results demonstrate the need for better intervention programs to help victims of post-relationship bullying/cyberbullying. For example, those stalking victims still in school (whether college or high school) can benefit from safe spaces being established where they can feel free to disclose what has been happening to them. School health staff (especially nurses and counselors) can also screen for signs of relationship violence, as well as provide counseling to address post-traumatic stress and depression. Also, since many victims may not recognize unwanted pursuit behavior as stalking, screening instruments to question victims about whether they have been targeted by unwanted pursuit behaviors can be used as well.  

As for dealing with the pursuers themselves, education can be essential, especially for pursuers who may not recognize that their behavior is upsetting to their targets. Education programs can also help promote greater awareness of the issues surrounding unwanted pursuit behavior and its role in preventing later episodes of sexual or relationship violence. There is also a need for greater vigilance in policing online social platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, to identify incidents of cyber-stalking and to provide greater safety for targets online.

In an era of anonymity, surveillance, and social media, the opportunities for unwanted pursuit behavior seem greater than ever. But the political and social will for developing solutions for this behavior is stronger as well. Finding better solutions and putting them into effect are essential first steps.

References

Dardis, C. M., Strauss, C. V., & Gidycz, C. A. (2018, April 30). The Psychological Toll of Unwanted Pursuit Behaviors and Intimate Partner Violence on Undergraduate Women: A Dominance Analysis. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/vio0000189

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