What is online harassment?
Online harassment is described as a wide range of targeted behaviors online perpetuated to scare, intimidate, threaten, or harm. Online harassment can target – or come from – a group or individual, and it might be ongoing and sustained over long periods.
According to a 2020 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 41% of American adults have personally experienced online harassment, with more than half of this group experiencing more severe behaviors such as physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking, and sustained harassment. The data is particularly concerning for members of the LGBTQ+ community: approximately seven out of ten have encountered online harassment, in comparison to four out of ten straight adults.
Specific types of online harassment include but are not limited to:
Doxxing: The act of publicly revealing previously private personal information about an individual or organization, including email addresses, phone numbers, addresses, social security numbers, or bank information.
Swatting: The act of making hoax emergency phone calls in order to provoke an armed police response from a SWAT team.
Revenge porn: The online publication of sexually explicit images or videos without consent.
False impersonation: Using someone’s name or identity in order to cause harm to the person or else to improperly gain a benefit (e.g. access to financial information).
Sexual harassment: Includes sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Online, sexual harassment can include unwanted sexual attention or requests for sex, image-based harassment, simulated rape, rape threats, sexual coercion, hate speech, and cyberstalking (Henry, 2020).
What are the impacts of online harassment?
Online harassment can lead to serious emotional, physical, and/or financial consequences. For example, many survivors of online stalking incur significant costs when they are forced to seek protection from their stalker (e.g. they have to change their address or seek professional guidance). Additionally, online harassment can often have psychological consequences such as stress, anxiety, disempowerment, and a lack of self-confidence.
The Online Abuse Wheel is an illustration of the key connections between harassment and its short-term and long-term consequences. It was created by Soraya Chemaly and Debjani Roy, and it is based on the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program’s Power and Control Wheel (1984).
[Online Abuse Wheel. Center of wheel says “online abuse." Tactics include rape & death threats, doxxing & swatting, stalking, gender-based bullying, impersonation, nonconsensual pornography, grooming & predation, and mob attacks. Legal issues include true threats, defamation & libel, impersonation and extortion, privacy/data identity theft, copyright infringement, stalking, sexual surveillance & harassment, child pornography, and intentional infliction of emotional harm. Impacts of online abuse include reputation, professional life, freedom of expression, financial costs, emotional harm, health, safety, dignity, and civil rights.]
The Online Abuse Wheel recognizes that online harassment and abuse is often interconnected with many examples of gender-based violence, such as grooming, bullying, and sexual assault. To learn more about the Wheel and other cases of cybersexism, please see the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.
Online Abuse of Groups that are Systemically Minoritized
It’s important to recognize that online harassment may also be experienced differently based upon an individual’s racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities. A 2017 Pew Research Center report noted that 1 in 4 black Americans have faced online harassment because of their race or ethnicity (as compared to only 3% of white Americans).
Online harassment can occur across a variety of social media platforms. In 2015, three women college professors at Eastern Michigan University urged officials to take action after being sexually harassed on Yik Yak, a popular app that allowed individuals to anonymously share posts with others within a 1.5 mile radius. Online abuse is also well-documented in spaces such as online gaming communities, where women gamers and gamers of color report high levels of verbal abuse, doxxing, and other threats to personal safety.
The consequences of online discrimination can be severe— for example, studies show that online racial discrimination is associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, and lower academic motivation. Additionally, minoritized groups may find it more difficult to report harassment due to factors such as racism, citizenship status, and access to social and economic resources.
However, the online abuse of systemically minoritized groups is not just limited to cases of digital harassment. For instance, digital sexual racism is an issue of concern in spaces such as online dating, where “preference” can often be wrongfully conflated with the right to stereotype, exoticize, and discriminate based on an individual’s racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Here is a list of resources for learning more about the causes and impacts of identity-based digital harassment:
How can I respond to cases of online harassment?
Online harassment is never okay. If you or someone you know is experiencing online harassment, stalking, or other forms of digital abuse, we are here to help.
Confidential Support Team (24/7): The Confidential Support Team (CST) offers confidential support to Stanford students impacted by sexual assault and relationship violence, including domestic abuse, intimate partner abuse, stalking and sexual or gender-based harassment. CST services include information and help accessing resources, short-term emotional support and ongoing individual counseling. There is no charge for Stanford students. For more information about CST’s 24/7 hotline, hours and support services, please visit the CST web page.
YWCA @ Stanford: YWCA Golden Gate Silicon Valley is an independent community-based organization providing free and confidential support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking, stalking, and sexual harassment in the Stanford community.
Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS): CAPS is the University’s counseling center available to help undergraduate and graduate students who experience a wide variety of personal, academic, and relationship concerns. They offer free evaluation and brief counseling, including individual, couples, and group therapy. The CAPS staff can help you address whatever it is that may be of concern to you in a confidential setting.
SHARE Title IX Response Team: The SHARE Title IX Response Team ensures that complaints are handled in accordance with established policies and procedures. They have staff members specifically dedicated to meeting with students seeking information about their resources, rights, and options.
TITLE IX Coordinator: Stephen Chen, firstname.lastname@example.org, (650)-497-4955
Basic Protocol on How to Respond to Online Harassment (HeartMob by Right To Be)
Reporting to Law Enforcement (PEN America)
Remember, being targeted by online harassment is never your fault. It can often be an emotional experience, and it is okay to feel stressed and overwhelmed when deciding if or how to act. If you choose to pursue further action, please make sure to take care of yourself as you navigate the process of documenting and reporting the behavior.
Where can I find more information on online harassment and digital safety?
Self Care for People Experiencing Harassment (HeartMob by Right To Be)
Online, Vulnerable Groups Only Become More Vulnerable (New America)
Digital Safety Kit (HeartMob by Right To Be)
Social Media Safety Guides (HeartMob by Right To Be)
Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors (Technology Safety by the National Network to End Domestic Violence)
Defining “Online Abuse”: A Glossary of Terms (PEN America)