stop cyberstalking!January is National Stalking Awareness Month and to bring awareness, we’re digging into cyberstalking — what it is, its effects on victims and how you can protect yourself and your family. The exact statistics on who is affected by cyberstalking are somewhat hazy because not all acts are reported, but, a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that an estimated 3.4 million adults 18 years and older experienced stalking in a 12-month period, with at least 25% of those individuals specifically experiencing cyberharassment. Given the number of people who are impacted by this crime (note that those statistics don’t include child victims) and the ever-expanding presence of technology, it’s likely that the psychological and social costs of cyberstalking will only continue to rise over time. Continue reading to learn more about cyberstalking, as well as how it can impact you and your family, along with your identities.

What is cyberstalking?

As with the statistics, the notion of what constitutes as cyberstalking is somewhat hard to identify. That said, it generally refers to a set of behaviors that use the Internet as a means to harass or harm someone. Things like “trolling” (or other cyberharassment), monitoring online activities (through spyware and hacking hardware like webcams), misleading someone online (like catfishing while online dating), doxing (revealing genuine, but private or identifying information about victims online) and lying about victims on social sites all count as cyberstalking. Keep in mind, cyberstalking is not limited to this list and an individual does not have to experience all of these things in order to be a victim of cyberstalking. This list is to more or less illustrate some of the things that cyberstalkers choose to do to their victims. Because of the broad scope of behaviors that fall under the umbrella of cyberstalking, it often has a huge degree of overlap with other Internet-based harassment, such as cyberbullying.

How does cyberstalking affect its victims?

Cyberstalking is often done by someone the victim knows, as detailed by the Bureau of Justice Statistic’s special report, but there have been cyberstalkers who targeted people they didn’t know. Because cyberstalking involves a blend of factors and behaviors, its effects on victims can be multifaceted, resulting in anything from psychological harm, physical harm or suicide to emotional stress or psychological stress. This makes cyberstalking more than just a mere invasion of privacy, but also a threat to the physical safety and well-being of its victims. Given how covert cyberstalking can be, it’s been hard for victims to prosecute their digital stalkers, adding to the duress victims can sometimes experience. However, slowly but surely, strides are being made to start seriously punishing cyberstalking and its consequences.

How to prevent or stop cyberstalking

1. Practice good privacy habits. To reduce the ammunition a cyberstalker can use against you or your family online, it may be a good idea to limit what information is posted about you or your children on social media sites or Google (or any other search engine). As such, you’ll want to avoid posts using geolocation, parental oversharing and excessive posting of material that can be considered risqué or damaging to you and your family if seen by someone (like an employer). In addition, you’ll want to make sure you’re checking your privacy settings regularly and verifying everything is only viewable by people you’re online friends with because most social media sites change these settings frequently — this means your account could be viewed by the public without you knowing. While it can be hard to manage your children’s privacy settings, as it’s likely they may not be so excited to hand over their passwords, a parental control software can help. These services not only block your child from visiting certain sites, but also monitor your child’s online activity (including on social media), which can help you spot any cyberstalking or cyberbullying behavior.

2. Practice good cybersecurity habits, too. Another easy way to protect your online accounts is to practice smart cybersecurity habits. This means having strong passwords and enabling two-factor authentication if your online account offers it. Taking steps to protect your cybersecurity will go a long way to ensure a stalker doesn’t have unauthorized access to your account or any personal materials that can be used against you.

3. If you’re being harassed online, save all communications. In the instance that you or your child is experiencing any form of online harassment, you’ll want to print or save the messages, posts or any other communications, as documenting it will help you build a case against the person for legal judgment in the real world (if you choose to pursue one).

4. Block and report the harasser. After you’ve saved all of the communication, you’ll want to try to block this person from contacting you or your child. Most online sites and services have a block and/or report function that will quickly cut off communication between you and another user — and if a user is reported enough, they’ll be suspended from the site. This should help put a virtual chasm between you and any online stalkers.

5. Report it to the authorities. At any point in your experience in dealing with a cyberstalker, don’t hesitate to go to the authorities. Keep in mind, the more evidence you have collected of the behavior and the more you can prove that such behavior was a legitimate threat to your or your children’s perceived safety, the more likely it is the justice system will take action. As noted by this victim’s interview on NPR, the authorities may not always take online crimes like cyberstalking or cyberharassment seriously, but if you’re persistent and document the behavior, they will write up a report.

Although these tips aren’t a surefire way to prevent cyberstalking, they can make a big difference and help you minimize what information is available online. For more information about your security and safety online, read our technology blog.