Technology opens our lives up in ways that weren't possible even less than a decade ago. My children laugh themselves silly when they hear me waxing nostalgic about the days when we pulled over to the side of the road to use a public pay phone, or called someone on the phone for directions ("What? No cell phone? No GPS navigation?"). Today you can chat with someone whether they're in the next room or in another country with ease, via a variety of technologies. It's all fast and amazing.
On the flip side of that good fortune is that same technology has also provided a way for people to do bad things.
Cyberstalking, simply put, is online stalking. It has been defined as the use of technology, particularly the Internet, to harass someone. Common characteristics include false accusations, monitoring, threats, identity theft, and data destruction or manipulation. Cyberstalking also includes exploitation of minors, be it sexual or otherwise.
The harassment can take on many forms, but the common denominator is that it's unwanted, often obsessive, and usually illegal. Cyberstalkers use email, instant messages, phone calls, and other communication devices to stalk, whether it takes the form of sexual harassment, inappropriate contact, or just plain annoying attention to your life and your family's activities.
Kids use the term "stalking" to describe following someone's activities via their social network. My own children accuse me of being their "stalker" for keeping tabs on their digital lives. It's important that we not devalue the serious nature of the crime of cyberstalking by using the term incorrectly. A recent television commercial for a major cellular provider depicts a young woman spying on her crush through his bedroom window while she monitors his online activities on her cell phone. While it's meant to be a humorous ad, it's extremely unsettling when stalking occurs in the real world.
Interestingly, this same ad points to an important fact about cyberstalking; it is often perpetrated not by strangers, but by someone you know. It could be an ex, a former friend, or just someone who wants to bother you and your family in an inappropriate way.
How Cyberstalking Harms
Cyberstalking can be terribly frightening. It can destroy friendships, credit, careers, self-image, and confidence. Ultimately it can lead the victim into far greater physical danger when combined with real-world stalking. Yes, we're talking serious stuff here. Victims of domestic violence are often cyberstalking victims. They, like everybody else, need to be aware that technology can make cyberstalking easy. Spyware software can be used to monitor everything happening on your computer or cell phone, giving tremendous power and information to cyberstalkers.
Here are a few important pointers to help you thwart cyberstalking, whether it's directed at you, your PC, or your family:
Teach Your Children
You might sound like a broken record, but keep on telling your kids they should never provide any personal information about themselves online, no matter how safe they think it might be. Tell them never to indicate their real name, school, address, or even the city where they live. Phone numbers are not to be distributed online, and if a stranger contacts them via any method, they need to let you know right away. Encourage your kids to tell you if they're being cyberstalked. As parents, you should report cyberstalking to a teacher or school administrator and, if it seems serious, the police.
If you're being cyberstalked, remember to keep a copy of any message or online image that could serve as proof. In fact, show your children how to use the "print screen" or other keyboard functions to save screenshots.
Most important, don't be afraid to report cyberstalking to the police. Many police departments have cybercrime units, and cyberstalking is a crime.