Cyberbullying / Stalking & Harassment
Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment
In the early days of cyberabuse, when WiredSafety's volunteers first offered help to victims of cyberstalking and cyber-harassment in 1995, cyberstalking and cyberharassment were defined differently. Now cyberstalking and cyberharassment are lumped together along with any way adults use digital technology to torment, harass, intentionally annoy or set their victims up for attacks by unwitting third parties (like hate groups and violent individuals). While this short article summarizes cyberharassment, WiredSafety has more resources and more experience than any other online group on the issue of cyberharassment, cyberstalking and cyberbullying (minor-to-minor). Visit our tutorials, take a class or two online with us, visit our help channel or refer your case to our WiredPatrol Internet Response Team for help form our specially-trained volunteers. The one thing you need to understand about cyberharassment is that you shouldn't have to live with it.
Why Don't We Call Adult Cyberharassment "Cyberbullying"? Parry Aftab reminds us that, with cyberbullying and harassment, what we need to know as adults we already learned in kindergarten. How does that work when the Internet was a twinkle in Vint Cerf's eye when most of us were young? It's not complicated. We all understand name-calling, being excluded or being threatened at some point in our young lives. Now imagine that we could retaliate against anyone who has wronged us, made us angry, jealous or unfairly-judged and not get caught. If we were invisible, what would be do or say to those we dislike or hold in contempt? How would we lash out against others, what would we do that we would never consider doing openly? That is cyberharassment, and when it involves spying, tracking and targeting our online activities, communications and friends, is "cyberstalking." But for all purposes, they are interchangeable terms. Several things motivate cyberharassment. These can range from boredom and the harasser seeking entertainment to personal vendettas, and include:
- To get the attention of the target or others
Sometimes there is no motive at all, and the target was targeted merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It becomes a cybercrime of convenience. There are several things you can do to make you less vulnerable to cyberharassment. We will teach you those in our WiredCampus classes and here in our Resources Section. If you need help, drop by our Getting Help or Looking for Help pages.
Responding to Cyberharassment
"The US federal cyberstalking law is designed to prosecute people for using electronic means to repeatedly harass or threaten someone online," said Parry Aftab, who is also an attorney who specializes in Internet law. "It's right on point."
Cyberstalkers can hide their identities when contacting their victims students. Further, cyberharassment can cross over into physical assaults, Aftab said. Online harassment has led to fights, and in some cases, stabbings, murder and suicide. The Justice Department says cyber stalking presents unique challenges for school officials, law enforcement and victims because:
- When targets can't identify anonymous stalkers, police may be hesitant to respond.
- Authorities may minimize reports, assuming online partners will never meet.
- Cyberstalkers can sometimes learn a target's true identity, location and routines while the target can't pinpoint them.
- Cyberstalkers can use cyberspace to publicly compound a target's distress.
Aftab and the US Justice Department recommend advising a target of cyberstalking to take the following steps:
- Tell the person not to make contact again.
- Save all communications for evidence. Do not alter them in any way. Keep electronic copies, not just print-outs.
- Save any information that suggests a violent threat and contact law enforcement.
- If the harassment continues, contact the harasser's Internet service provider. The ISP is provided with instant messages. Most ISPs prohibit using their service for abusive purposes. An ISP can often intervene by directly contacting the stalker or closing his account.
- Keep a record of your contacts with ISP officials or law enforcement officials.
- When contacting police, provide specific details such as any tangible evidence you've collected. In cases of a serious threat, police can refer the matter to state or federal authorities for investigation. The stalker may be prosecuted in court.
- If the target is afraid to act, find help through other resources, such as WiredSafety.
Working with police
The quick answer is that if there is a hint of physical violence, public postings designed to point people to the victim's real life location or contact information, or threats of any kind, it's essential that law enforcement is called right away. If the cyberbullying/cyberharassment involves cyberbullying/cyberstalking-by- proxy and hate groups or threats of death or serious bodily harm, you don't have time to waste. You need to turn this over to law enforcement or your school resource officer right away. The more information that can be gathered, the faster they can act. But the threat has to be treated as a credible threat until proven otherwise.
Make sure that no one adds new software or alters the computer in any way during an investigation. You'll need a live copy of the communication or post, not just a print-out. The coding that accompanies all cyber communications is the only way to know if the communication was spoofed or if someone has taken over someone else's account to send or post it. Some sites and service providers also have a school liaison representative who will help handle emergencies spotted by the school. The time to check on these things is long before you need them, not in a crisis.
Working with service providers
The leading social networks, virtual worlds, and gaming sites, as a requirement for their being awarded the WiredTrust Best Practice Seal, must draft and provide a copy of a law enforcement investigators guide to help law enforcement agencies understand how the network/site/online service provider works, what they collect, and how police can reach out to contact them when things go wrong.
Most networks and service providers have a law enforcement liaison to assist law enforcement with investigations and inquiries. Their first inquiry needs to ask that the data be preserved. The responsible sites usually will do this on a phone call or faxed letter. They then will need a subpoena and to serve that subpoena wherever and however the network or service provider requires. The sites may have phone numbers for after-hour use. Make sure your local police department has this information available to them when you need it. Again, forewarned is forearmed. Do it well in advance of the time you need it.
Defining the School Cyberbullying Problem
All schools, parents and students are struggling to address and contain the growing cyberbullying problem. While bullying itself is difficult to prevent, cyberbullying is much harder. It starts online and moves offline, or starts offline and moves online or starts and stays online. It happens during the school day on student-owned devices as well as school computers. It happens off-premises, after-hours and bleeds into the school day. As Parry Aftab has said repeatedly, and the volunteers at WiredSafety who handle cyberbullying cases and help victims and their families know, there is no silver bullet. There is no one answer. But there are many ways to attack the problem, piece by piece.
Schools have approached this in different ways. Many schools have adopted policies and rules that the parents and students have to sign before the students are permitted to use the Internet at school. Some are using filtering products. Others are sending notices to parents and setting policies for safe and acceptable use. Some are trying to regulate student activities after hours and off-premises. And, when they overstep their authority, schools are finding themselves named in lawsuits for infringing on a student's free speech or due process rights. Far too often, schools lose these lawsuits.
There is no "one size fits all" here. Solutions need to be customized to take into consideration the school's technology uses and staffing, curriculum, students' needs and behavior, parents' concerns, and community values. It is more a matter of awareness about the problem areas than the specific laws, which change often and vary jurisdiction by jurisdiction. All good lawyers know how to spot a potential legal problem. Good school administrators and educators, unfortunately, in these difficult times do, too. The new issues, such as cyberbullying and how far a school's authority can extend, and social networking websites, such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com (among others), create challenges to grapple with and emotional parental responses. Where do we start? We all need to remember that we are still learning, often the hard way. Children are very innovative in abusing the Internet and each other. Sometimes they do this intentionally. But almost as often, they hurt each other with miscommunications, poor digital literacy and hygiene skills.
Just when we think we understand the risks and have worked out solutions, they surprise us with their innovations. But, if parents, school administrators and school boards, teachers, school safety officers, students, guidance counselors and librarians and library-media specialists work together and keep the lines of communication open, we'll keep making progress. All we have to do is hold out until this new generation of Internet-savvy students become parents, teachers, and school administrators themselves.
Understanding Cyberbullying & Cyberharassment
What's the difference between "cyberbullying" and "cyberstalking and harassment"? Parry Aftab receives this question 100 times a week. They are the same thing (with a few minor tweaks) except that "cyberbullying" as a term is reserved for minors hurting other minors. Anything involving adults is called "cyberstalking and harassment" or just "cyberharassment." So, please don't visit our StopCyberbullying.org website (the most popular cyberbullying website in the world) and tell us that we somehow forgot that adults can be targeted online. Be know that. It's making sure you understand your terms.
The better you do, the easier it will be for you to communicate your problem. Cyberbullying = minors only. Cyberstalking=adults (or adults and minors). "Cyberharassment"= adults (or adults and minors)
For cyberbullying information and resources, visit our StopCyberbullying.org site. It has everything you need and will be updated as soon as we are finished with WiredSafety. Remember, if you need our help, check out Getting Help, or Looking for Help.
WiredSafety also formed the StopCyberbullying Coalition of leading NGO and industry organizations to join forces and fight cyberbullying.