The growing problem of cyber-harassment and how we can curb it

Cyber-harassment is a new phenomenon that has grown in prevalence along with increased global access to the internet. Nowadays cyber-harassment is as or more likely to happen to someone, especially if they habitually use the internet.

A whole generation is being raised in an internet culture whereby strangers and criminals are closer to us than ever before. With the advent of social media, personal information such as phone numbers, emails, names of children and home address can be mined by unscrupulous internet agents.

The abundance of personal information that the internet enables means that those seeking to stalk someone will have a much easier time sourcing information that they can use to disastrous effect. Cyberstalking is really no different from traditional stalking, other than that it is made much easier by the technologically integrated world we live in.

However, people, organisations and governments in Western society have all acknowledged the threat of cyberstalking and have enacted measures to curb it with varying success. Cyberstalking goes hand in hand with cyberbullying, something that is commonly seen at today’s schools.

Some non-profit organisations raise awareness and funds to combat cyber-related issues through specialised software and support services. Groups like this are essential to giving victims of cyber-harassment a support network that does more than simply pat them on the back, as it actively helps to remedy these situations and get victims back on their feet.

Cyberstalking, like any other issue, comes in degrees of severity and the way people respond to it will be initially different. For some people, logging off of social media is enough to avoid most cyberstalking or harassment, but in many cases it is not.

In a world where having an online presence feels like a social obligation, especially for younger people, it can be hard to avoid channels whereby you can be cyberstalked. Regardless, individuals should feel safe and confident in using the internet without fear of being victimised.

The anonymity factor

The growing problem of cyber-harassment and how we can curb it
Technology allows people to harass others without physically confronting them. Photo: TeroVesalainen, Bigstock

The biggest difference between forms of harassment on the internet and those in real life is the inherent anonymity of online agents. Most websites allow users to create fake profiles through which they can harass other users without fear of being identified and ostracised in real life.

The fact that people can say and do things from the relative safety of their phone or computer means that they can harass people without fear of physical confrontation. Truly, the fact that there is less risk of discovery in using online channels explains why cases of cyberstalking and harassment are so prevalent.

People will naturally do what they think they can get away with and certainly a large number of cases of online harassment would not have taken place in the real world. Because of the fact that this kind of bullying does not go beyond inflammatory online posts, it is often discounted and not taken seriously as a gateway to more severe cyber-harassment.

When “harmless” becomes harmful

The big issue with the aforementioned anonymity factor is that, as mentioned, it dilutes the definition of cyberstalking and harassment so that people think it’s no more serious than juvenile schoolyard teasing. This means that when cases do become serious they are often not acted on as quickly as they should be and this is something which can cost lives.

It’s well-known that teenage mental health issues are heavily exacerbated by social media and cyber-harassment. As young people attach their self-worth to measurable online popularity, we find that their self-esteem is incredibly easy to undermine.

The immortality that is bestowed upon anything uploaded the internet means embarrassing schoolyard moments caught on camera are shared virally and haunt people for years. An explicit photo that was shared in confidence between experimenting teenagers can now be broadcast to their entire social circle with a few sinister clicks.

The issues inherent to adolescence are blown up via the internet and this gives ample opportunity for the most dangerous online predators to move in and exploit young people. This leads into more serious issues of child pornography and paedophilia where by the internet has enabled anonymous predators to lure children who use the internet unsupervised.

There are several highly cited cases of people committing suicide as a result of online harassment and bullying. While it would be inaccurate to say the online harassment was the only factor that led to their suicide, it is definitely a big part of the picture that needs to be addressed.

How do we solve it?

Solving an issue like this is not something that will ever really have a final victory. The reality of harassment and similar social issues will probably stay with society for a long time to come.

However, this does not mean people need to be victimised by these actions. By donating to support groups and remaining personally vigilant against problematic online behaviour it’s easy for people to help curb cases of cyber-harassment by a significant margin.

Christian Woods
Christian Woods
Christian is a morning reporter and technology columnist for Best in Australia. Christian has worked in the media since 2000, in a range of locations. He joined Best in Australia in 2018, and began working in Melbourne in 2019.
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