Cyberstalking Yet to Be Taken as Seriously as It Should

Social withdrawal and fear are found among victims of cyberstalking

Posted Sep 03, 2015

Surian Soosay/Flickr
Source: Surian Soosay/Flickr

If you were to Google search your name right now, what would come up?  Some are surprised by what they find.  The posting of personal information has made the internet the perfect medium for harassment and stalking.

Cyberstalking can take on a number of forms including blackmail, having online activities tracked, or sending threatening messages. Some cyberstalkers commit identity theft and proceed to terrorize victims in ways such as cancelling credit cards or using personal information to besmirch individuals.

Cyberstalking takes an emotional toll on victims, a feeling that Anna, a university student recently interviewed by The Trauma & Mental Health Report knows well.

Anna:  I would receive up to 10 emails from him a day.  He would send me photos of myself with vulgar and aggressive comments about me and my family, and he also made a MySpace page dedicated to me with offensive comments on them.  I was terrified to go onto any social networking site.

Anna’s cyberstalker even went as far as to email her university professors, demanding they provide information about her.

Anna:  I was constantly cancelling plans and commitments… I was afraid to leave my house.  It’s frightening not knowing where your stalker is when they’re contacting you.  For all you know they could be sitting in a car, on the same street where you live, messaging you from their cell phone.  I didn’t know if I was in real physical danger.  I worried about my safety all the time.

It is common for cyberstalkers to make threats of physical violence, and there have been cases where online stalking has crossed over to offline stalking.  For Anna, her fear resulted in anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia.

Also common is for work or academic performance to deteriorate and interpersonal relationships to crumble from distrust, leaving these victims with a lack of social support.

The fear associated with cyberstalking can be so traumatic for some that desperate measures are taken. A study of cyberstalked university students performed by PhD candidate, Nancy Felicity Hensler-McGinnis of the University of Maryland showed that many reported withdrawal from courses or transferring schools to feel safer.  Popular cases like that of Kristen Pratt demonstrate that some victims will even change their appearance.

Calling the police seemed like Anna’s best solution, but the initial response she received was not helpful.

Anna:  I was told to try to track his IP address on my own because the police IT department might not be able to do it.  I was told to tell him to stop (as if I hadn’t already done that) and to make myself anonymous on the internet, which is not only difficult but nearly impossible in our technology driven professional world.  I was treated as if my situation wasn’t serious or detrimental to my well-being.

Anna’s predicament was not unusual.  Cyberstalking is often not taken seriously.  This is reflected in the lack of cyberstalking legislation in Canada.  Sections of the criminal code focus specifically on face-to-face stalking and although some cyberstalking behaviours are included, there are gaps.

When school teacher Lee David Clayworth’s cyberstalker harmed his reputation by posting inappropriate content under his name, authorities could do little, since his cyberstalker was not in Canada.  Canadian arrest warrants were not effective; jurisdictional obstacles, like difference in internet service providers, leave victims helpless.

U.S. state laws regarding cyberstalking vary, but according to the Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) organization, many of these only protect victims 18 and under. Alabama, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Indiana have no formal cyberstalking laws. While some legislation addresses cyber harassment, this is defined as having no credible threat to victims.

Lack of internet regulation leaves victims to track down cyberstalkers on their own.  Asking individuals to erase their identities online is unrealistic.  Online communication continues to grow and law enforcement is having a hard time keeping up.

In both Canada and the US, some bills have been proposed.

Anna’s advice to victims is not to let fear control their lives:  People who harass you online want you to feel isolated and powerless.  If you are not in any immediate danger it is important to realize that by living in fear, you are actually giving them exactly what they want.  Do everything in your power to get them to stop; speak up about your experience and make their behaviour public.

Anna also stresses the importance of a support system. Talking to friends, family, or a counsellor may help victims deal with the trauma and realize they are not alone.

Clinical psychologist Seth Meyers mentions the importance of warning friends and family of a potential stalker as well. This could protect loved ones if there is risk of physical danger, and keeps victims from socially isolating themselves.

Until authorities take action, the Canadian Clearhousing on Cyberstalking suggests that victims report harassment to their internet service provider which can possibly take such measures as blocking the cyberstalker’s IP address from contacting them. Victims can also find support from organizations such as WHOA or CyberAngels which can help gather information to build a criminal case against the cyberstalker.

As communication continues online, personal information ends up on the internet. It is time that lawmakers realize the dangers and enact legislation to keep users safe.

- By Anjali Wisnarama, Contributing Writer, The Trauma & Mental Health Report 

- Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma & Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller