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Does cyber stalking really harm anyone?

Monday, March 3, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

cyberstalkingMost of us realize that real life stalking is a serious issue and very frightening to the victim, whether male or female and whether young or old. But what about cyber stalking? While research on real life stalking has grown over the past two decades, actual research on cyber stalking is sparse–despite ever-increasing depictions on television and in movies. 

Recently, German researchers did a large scale survey of 6,379 participants on a large German social network (StudiVZ) to assess the prevalence of cyber stalking. They asked the participants to complete a measure of well-being (the WHO-5 Wellbeing Index), as well as other measures describing demographics, and level of internet use. Of the 6,379 participants, 42% were female, the average age was 24.4 years, 75% had the equivalent of a high school education, 50% were currently college students, 38% were employed and 11.4% were unemployed. The majority (59.6%) were not married. So, basically a gen-Y sample.

The researchers wanted to determine the prevalence of cyber stalking using the definitions for stalking in the real (offline) world. They required three criteria (which were used in the first population-based study on stalking in Germany): unwanted internet contacts/harassment; a duration of more than 2 weeks; and harassment that provoked fear.

The researchers are quick to say that “Facebook stalking” (referring to gathering info on someone from Facebook profiles) should not be included in cyberstalking definitions since it “trivializes the seriousness of cyberstalking”. They recommend classifying “Facebook stalking” as a “less severe method of online pursuit” under either the category of “cyber obsessional pursuit (COP)” or “online obsessive relational intrusion”. Okay, those terms sound much less severe, right?

Here is what they found about cyberstalking among users of this widely used German social media platform:

43.4% of the participants said they had experienced online harassment at least once. However, when the other two criteria for offline stalking (i.e., a duration of more than 2 weeks and the harassment causing fear), the prevalence dropped to 6.3%.

Those who had been stalked (the 6.3% meeting all three criteria), were more likely female (80.5%), less educated, more likely to be unemployed, and more likely to be single.

Thirty-two per cent of the segment that were cyberstalking victims reported their cyberstalking lasted up to a month, 45% said it had lasted up to a year, while 22% said it continued for more than a year. Twenty-seven percent were stalked several times daily, 21% were contacted daily, 30% were contacted several times a week, 11% once a month, and 11.5% were only contacted occasionally. (Keep in mind that this is a study of over 6000 participants, so the subgroup that qualified under the definition of being cyberstalked was nearly 400 strong).

The victim-participants reported being stalked through emails, defamation to others online, messages posted about them online, encouraging others to also send harassing messages to the victim (“stalking by proxy”), sent email viruses, downloaded data from the victim’s computer without the knowledge of the victim, and other avenues for online intrusion.

Victims reported their cyberstalkers were often known to them and listed cyberstalkers as distant relatives, family members, ex-partners, friends, acquaintances, or some other person. The majority of cyberstalkers (69.4%) were male although a significant proportion (28.1%) were female. The gender of the remaining 2.5% was unknown. The researchers note that this proportion of female stalkers is higher than the offline female stalker rate in Germany and hypothesize that the avoidance of the direct confrontation may make cyberstalking more attractive for women (since more women than men use indirect stalking behaviors).

Motivation(s) for the stalking (from the victim’s perspective) was mainly (62%) seen as the result of either a real or perceived rejection, jealousy (55%), a desire for a romantic relationship (49%), or revenge (40%). Thirteen percent of the victims were unable to identify any cyberstalking motive at all. These motivations are very similar to the motivations ascribed to offline stalkers.

There was overlap between cyberstalking and offline stalking with only 1/4 of the victims experiencing cyberstalking alone . Forty-two percent reported simultaneously occurring offline and cyberstalking, 16.5% said cyberstalking was followed by offline stalking, and 15.8% said offline stalking came first and cyberstalking began later.

In those cases where both offline stalking and cyberstalking were present, 12% said they had been “grabbed or held down”, 8.8% reported being hit with the hand and 3.8% reported having “been attacked with objects”.

In terms of the emotional and physical response to the cyberstalking, only 2.5% of the victims reported no symptoms at all. Among the symptoms reported were “feelings of inner unrest” (78.2%), distrust of others (68.2%), sleep disturbance (64.2%), feelings of helplessness, anger and aggression (55%), and multiple other issues often seen in victims of offline stalking (e.g., upset stomach, headaches, social withdrawal and depression, panic attacks, relationship wariness, and more).

These reactions are very similar to the reactions reported by offline stalking victims. Further, there were no differences in the reactions of male and female victims. The researchers believe this to be the result of including the presence of fear in the criteria of cyberstalking since “victims’ fear levels are the best predictor of physical and psychological health consequences”.

Overall, the researchers say the prevalence rate for cyberstalking was estimated at 6.3% which “is similar to the prevalence estimate for offline stalking in Germany”. The psychological and physical health impact is also similar. The researchers believe that cyberstalking is as serious a situation as offline stalking but also acknowledge the correlation between mental health symptoms and being a victim of cyberstalking could mean if you have mental health issues you are at higher risk for being cyberstalked. Unhealthy people often have unhealthy relationships. But with that said, it is both foolish and unfair to presume that someone who is being stalked (cyber or not) has mental health problems apart from the stalking.

In terms of litigation advocacy, this study offers a large sample where half of the sample was non-students and as the researchers put it, “this study offers a broader empirical data basis to shed light on cyberstalking and its impact upon victims”. It’s a good way to communicate the seriousness (and the impact on both men and women) of being a victim of cyberstalking.

Dreßing, H., Bailer, J., Anders, A., Wagner, H., & Gallas, C. (2014). Cyberstalking in a Large Sample of Social Network Users: Prevalence, Characteristics, and Impact Upon Victims Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17 (2), 61-67 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0231


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