'Cyberstalking': Worse Than in-Person Harassment?

Psychologist Warns of Stress and Trauma From Stalking via the Internet

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 8, 2011 (Washington, D.C.) -- Due in large part to its 24/7, global presence, "cyberstalking" appears to cause its victims more stress and trauma than in-person stalking, according to a leading psychologist's observations.

"If you're harassed in school or at work, you can come home to a safe environment," says Elizabeth Carll, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Long Island, N.Y.

"If you're cyberstalked, it can be all the time, no matter where you are," she tells WebMD. "Ironically, cyberstalking is not taken as seriously because it's seen as more removed, not real. In fact, it's worse."

Cyberstalking takes on many forms, Carll says. Among them: Installing spyware on a target's computer or via email; GPS (global positioning system) surveillance of the movement of victims; posting personal or false and humiliating information about the victim on the Internet; sending harassing emails and text message, and using social media such as Facebook or Twitter to post false and humiliating information.

Also, cyberbullyers may send viruses, spam attacks, and harmful programs to compromise or destroy the victim's computer, bully, and threaten a victim in chat rooms, Carll says. They may also use caller ID spoofing, Carll says. That's when the name of a person calling a victim shows up on caller ID as a favorite aunt, for example.

No well-designed studies comparing cyberstalking to real-world stalking have been conducted to date, Carll says. Recruiting people to participate is difficult, as most want to keep a low profile, she says.

Carll bases her conclusions on sessions with about 100 patients who have been cyberstalked in the last couple of years and thousands of victims of in-person harassment during her 25 years of practice.

Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the non-profit Media Psychology Research Center, tells WebMD that she's not convinced cyberstalking is worse than in-person stalking.

"Cyberstalking is a big issue right now. We pay attention to negative things, so it seems more prevalent.

"Anytime you're being harassed, it's stressful. You can lose site of the behavior if you worry about the tools. It may turn out harassment itself, not technology, is not the critical factor," she says.

Victims of Cyberstalking

In Carll's experience, victims of cyberstalking have a wide range of emotional reactions, including high levels of stress, anxiety, fear, and helplessness as well as nightmares, hypervigilance, undereating or overeating, and sleeping difficulties.

She spoke here at the American Psychological Association's (APA) annual convention. Carll is a member of the APA media psychology division.

U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that 3.4 million adults are victims of stalking and one in four, the majority female, have become the targets of cyberstalking, according to Carll.

She says that studies also show:

  • 40% of women have experienced dating violence via social media, which can include harassing text messages and having disturbing information about them posted on social media sites.
  • 20% of online stalkers use social networking to stalk their victims.
  • 34% of female college students and 14% of male students have broken into a romantic partner's email.

What to Do About Cyberstalking

Interestingly, the same technologies used to cyber-harass can also be used to intervene and prevent harassment and violence, Carll says.

"A cell phone application that can tell you if someone threatening you is nearby could be lifesaving," she says.

"We also have to train people to protect themselves by using secure passwords," Carll says. "Never give your password to anyone else."

Also, some states are considering mandating the use of GPS tracking devices on offenders to allow victims to keep tabs on them, Carll says.

Additionally, new federal legislation that addresses all forms of technology used for harassment and stalking needs to be passed, she says.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.


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SOURCES: American Psychological Association's 119th Annual Convention, Washington, D.C. Aug. 4-7, 2011.Elizabeth Carll, PhD, psychologist, Huntington, N.Y.; member, American Psychological Association media psychology division.Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director, Media Psychology Research Center, Boston. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.