Online harassment is both terrifying and incredibly common. The solution isn’t as simple as turning off the computer and walking away. Although these hostile encounters occur in the virtual space, they can have serious real-world consequences. Victims can be plagued with mental or emotional stress in response to the damage of reputations or fearing for their personal safety.
HeartMob, a website that provides real-time support to people experiencing online abuse, defines online harassment as a variety of damaging behaviors such as hateful messages, doxxing, DDoS attacks, swatting, defamation, and more. The goal of the harasser is to drive the target off the internet or punish them by publishing personal information, sending threats, or promoting harm.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, almost half of Americans have personally experienced online harassment. The majority of Americans (66 percent) have witnessed abusive or threatening behaviors online directed at others. Young women and marginalized minority groups are especially vulnerable to this kind of attack.
Although you might feel powerless if you’ve been threatened or abused online, you can manage the trauma. We consulted psychologists, legal experts, victim advocates, and survivors about how to best handle online harassment. Here’s what they said. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
You should keep copies of the online harassment. Either take screenshots or print them. You may need evidence later for law enforcement or for a civil lawsuit. What starts as moderate harassment can escalate, and if it does, you will need to have copies of harassing and malicious remarks. Contact law enforcement. If you are underage, show the posts to your parents. Report the bullying to platform providers and/or have the harassing comments flagged. - Dr. Charlotte Laws, victims advocate and anti-revenge porn activist
Online abuse—like nearly any type of abuse—relies on a victim’s sense of shame. When a victim gives into that shame by going silent, the abuser wins. Conversely, victory is only possible when a victim refuses to go silent. So speak out. Solicit help and support from others. Dig deep; find the courage to stand up. More and more victims are linking arms and refusing to be forced quietly into the night. This is how things turn around. - Candice Blain, attorney and founder of Blain LLC, a law firm specializing in helping victims of cyber abuse
But Ignore the Troublemaker
Sometimes your first reaction is to respond directly to the person/people posting abusive content about you. My advice: Do not engage. Do not give your harasser or bully the satisfaction. All too often, responding or engaging starts a downward spiral that often makes matters worse and muddies the waters for the victim when they do finally seek assistance from the legal system. - Carla Franklin, cyber abuse expert, survivor, and advocate for victims
Protect Yourself (and Look Out for One Another)
Take steps to lock down your personal safety to reduce the risk of further harassment. The responsibility to stop harassment lies with each one of us, and bystanders have a key role to play when we witness harassment that is often overlooked. We can't depend on social media companies or the police to take care of us. We have to depend on one another and work together to change the culture that makes online harassment acceptable. Here is our comic on counterspeech, which can especially be useful if you're witnessing your friend get harassed. - Emily May, co-founder and executive director of Hollaback! and Heartmob, a platform that provides real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment
Many well-meaning people may advise you to “just log off." And while that can temporarily provide respite, you shouldn’t have to disengage from getting information, promoting yourself, sharing your thoughts, socializing, and all the other benefits of the internet because you have the unfortunate luck of being targeted. It can be frightening, embarrassing, and unnerving. Surround yourself with people who validate you. If the harassment starts to impair your daily functioning (feeling distress, difficulty eating or sleeping) reach out to a mental-health professional for support. - Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD, educational psychologist and adjunct professor at Hunter College
There Are Places That Can Help
You can find information on how to increase your privacy and on documentation in National Network to End Domestic Violence Technology Safety & Privacy Toolkit. No one deserves to be harassed online. You deserve to feel safe in all online spaces, and if someone is harassing you, look for resources to help you deal with that. - Erica Olsen, director, Safety Net Project, National Network to End Domestic Violence
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