While Cyberbullying is a term we have all heard many times in the news, usually in the form of horrendous incidents in which a group of teens have shown a mob mentality while encouraging a peer to go through with their thoughts of suicide.
Cyberstalking, on the other hand, is different and much more vague in its definition, but at its core, is predatory behavior and very frightening as it is historically under-reported.
Roughly 10 million children in the US have access to the internet. Of those, approximately 1 in 5 such children are solicited for sex online. Cyberstalking is the use of social networks, and other websites to follow, watch, and/or communicate with an individual who in sharing personal information online are not soliciting contact from strangers. In fact, victims of Cyberstalking by definition, do not desire being followed, watched, or communicated with. The overwhelmingly number of victims of Cyberstalking which by its very nature, indicates a credible threat, are children (Elizondo, 2017, Institute of Psychiatric Services’ 2017 Mental Health Services Conference).
As noted above, cyberbullying is often something that occurs amongst peers, while Cyberstalking is perpetrated by those who are typically older, and in many cases, adults. This makes Cyberstalking extremely dangerous to children. It’s estimated that almost 50% of children in grades 1 – 3 use the internet in some capacity. That figure grows to 93% by 9th grade with 40% of these adolescents engaged in online communication, sharing of personal information via social networks or other means such as apps or chatrooms dedicated to specific interests such as a site for fans of a certain band. These predators, especially if adult, aren’t just searching social networks, but actively looking through sites like the above mentioned fan-sites of bands or recording artists that are well known to have a fan base almost entirely comprised of children and teens.
Despite the Bureau of Justice Statistics identifying 5.3 million cases of cyberstalking (or online harassment), this number is widely considered to be far lower than the reality as it includes adult victims as well as children. Despite these identified cases, many of them were not investigated and thus reinforced a perceived low-risk set of behaviors for predators. Physical stalking and Cyber Stalking also vary in their perpetrators and victims alike.
The average physical stalker is typically between the ages of 30 and 42, with 9 male perpetrators for every 1 female. Cyberstalkers on the other hands are typically younger than 25, with 3 males for every one female perpetrator. The makeup of the victims also differ between physical and cyber stalking with 1 in 22 youth victims of physical stalking versus 1 in 5 youth victims of cyberstalking. Unsurprisingly, there are more female victims of cyberstalking than males.
The above mentioned perception that cyberstalking is less risky for those who engage in this predatory behavior is not without basis. Just as physical stalking and cyber stalking differ in their perpetrators and victims, the laws are vague, outdated and lack the clear consequences required. Unlike physical stalking, laws applicable to Cyberstalking are not bound by borders or geographical location.
Compounding the problem, the implementation of the existing laws have several obstacles including State Laws, which can vary greatly state-by-state, lacking consistency if not arbitrary in many ways.
Take for instance The Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000, which requires parental consent for the collection or use of personal information about children younger than 13, leaving adolescents unprotected by the Act. The reasoning and motivation for the passing of this law was to protect children from online marketing, not cyberstalkers, with the age of 13 established due to thinking that children younger than 13 are more apt to be tricked by online marketers. The social networks and websites in establishing their policies followed the lead set by the law typically instituting a minimum age policy of 13 to establish an account. It is unknown how many of these online networks are even aware that the age of 13 established in the federal law was done so to protect against marketers rather than extremely more dangerous threats. Despite these age policies, it’s safe to say that most parents are aware that children of any age can easily circumvent age policies by merely entering a different year of birth when signing up for an account. It’s no different than clicking a link on the home page of a pornography website “confirming” the user is age 18 or older.
Two years prior to the above law, the Child Online Protection Act was passed (1998), but citing First Amendment rights, this law was ruled unconstitutional by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007. The Federal Government is simultaneously attempting to protect children while upholding First Amendment Rights.
On the state level, laws vary widely by state even on their fundamentals such as determining factors for severity being based on the age of the victim in one state and the age of the perpetrator in another state. In Florida for example, there are much stronger laws which automatically establish cyberstalking cases as third degree felonies if the victim(s) are younger than 16. Conversely, Missouri law classify cyberstalking as a felony if the perpetrator is 21 or older AND the victim is 17 or younger. To add further confusion and lack of consistency, Tennessee’s law classify cyberstalking as a felony if the victim is younger than 18 ONLY if the perpetrator is at least 5 years older than the victim. To further add to the disparity, Louisiana requires physical stalkers to undergo psychiatric evaluation, but do not require the same of convicted cyberstalkers. Louisiana has the right idea in their physical stalking laws – taking into account the mental health of the perpetrator in an effort to prevent recidivism.
A glaring problem to considering the issue on the state level is the fact that cyberstalking often involves perpetrators and victims who reside in different states from one another. This fact makes cases of cyberstalking very difficult to prosecute because the laws do not identify which specific county will prosecute cyberstalking incidents even within the same state but with the involved parties living in different counties. This problem often leads to a lack of allocation of investigative resources because the office of of the county DA or prosecutor won’t attempt to prosecute due to the geographical gap.
The Common Trajectory of Cyberstalking
- Personal Information:
First, it starts with the personal information being posted online. Teens are sharing a a great deal of personal information online, and it continues to shown that they are not all too concerned as to what happens to that information. Immediately, those teens are significantly easier prey for perpetrators. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that only 9% of teenagers said they were “very concerned” about third-party access to their personal data, and 39% of respondents admitted to having lied about their age online.
In cases where cyberstalking occurs across multiple mediums, the use of malware or other software tools. Trojan Horse Virus, Sniffers, and other software allows the cyberstalker the ability to monitor a child’s online activity across all internet as well as view the private files on their computers which may include photos and much more. This access doesn’t stop there. The cyberstalker is also able to view the child’s internet history and demographic data making it much easier to identify vulnerability.
Grooming, a term utilized by us mental health clinicians has finally made it into cautionary school assemblies and curriculum in health classes.
Risk Factors for susceptibility to grooming (essentially a process of manipulation utilized by predators) include but are not limited to low self-esteem, social alienation, poverty, dysfunction within the family, high level of physical attractiveness, as well as a history of behavioral and/or emotional problems and across the board, the fact that we are talking about teenagers who are increasingly more mobile and independent (and attempting to be more independent as a natural part of adolescence).
- Grooming Performed by Predators:
Initial contact is made, typically in a seemingly casual and lighthearted manner. By use of prosocial initial contact, such as sharing personal interests or stories related to what the stalker already knows to of a topic of interest to the potential victim. This perceived commonalities by the victim allows the stalker to gain not only trust but affection (in the form of positive feelings).
- Desensitization and Exploration:
Once a rapport or interaction has been established, the stalker may casually integrate sexually related comments, in a seemingly spontaneous and again, casual or lighthearted manner such as a sexually based joke or comment that is relatively benign amongst adults. Reactions and further interaction provides the stalker feedback as to how aggressive or graphic they might proceed, be it sending a sexually suggestive image or attempting to engage the victim in “casual” conversation as to the victim’s sexual experience or if they might be interested in engaging in such activity.
- Manipulatively Making Plans:
At some point, often after multiple interactions online, the perpetrator will attempt to set up “plans” or a meeting. They might cancel the plans at the last minute, not out of fear or remorse, but as a means to further manipulate the victim by increasing the victim’s desire to meet as the stalker has made themselves appear to be aloof or less interested. In those teens with some of the above-mentioned risk factors, the internalization of the stalker rejecting the victim by such tactics creates an inflated desirability to meet as well as an inflated sense of importance in the mind of the victim.
- Meeting in Person:
After employing these manipulative tactics and creating a desirability for the victim to meet up, plans are made and this time they meet. At this point, depending on how the perpetrator has presented themselves, they may have already sent the victim money or gifts online especially if the stalker is presenting themselves as someone of financial means and even as an adult (a college student with a successful side business, an independently wealthy 18 or 19 year old regardless of their actual age). At the meeting, the stalker will likely touch the victim in a way that conveys affection and is not seemingly sexual (briefly holding the victim’s hand, rubbing their shoulder, or something similar and intentionally avoiding the victim’s genitalia – to demonstrate affection again in a seemingly non-threatening and especially in a non-sexual way). This unfortunately is all part of the grooming and increases the likelihood that the next meeting will include sexual abuse.
- Sexual Abuse:
At this point, it might be a couple of months since initial contact occurred online. It’s important to remember that the developing brain (which does not have fully developed pre-frontal cortex till the person is in their early to mid 20’s), experiences the world around them differently than we do as adults. For instance, although contact had only been established within weeks, the grooming including the perceived intensity of this new friendship or flirting relationship takes precedence psychologically over the actual facts of how long the victim and stalker have been in contact as well as just how well does the victim actually know this stalker. At the next meeting the sexual abuse occurs and can take many forms depending on how this relationship has been framed. The victim may not feel victimized. They may feel, due to the unwavering lying and manipulating, that the stalker is in love with them as he would state so in an effort to get the victim to willingly engage in sexual contact and more importantly to the stalker to conceal the abuse which is reinforced through a rhetoric of the need to keep the abuse a secret for the time being. Again, much depends on how the stalker abused the victim. This is much easier explained verbally as there are a number of tactics employed by predators and many factors to consider.
Please note: The above are but a few of the tactics utilized by predators. There are many other ways the abuse might occur. That said, at it’s core, putting the details of presentation aside, there is a systemic set of tactics that have common psychological goals of trust, affection, inflated view of the predator as well as complying with keeping the sexual abuse a secret.
Shame & Secrets:
The victim depending on age and manner in which the abuse was lead up to and occurred, may feel a great amount of shame and confusion. There may be feelings of partial or total responsibility for the outcome or at least having contributed greatly. There may be concerns about how parent(s) will respond – often fearing they will be blamed entirely. In teens, one of the biggest factors keeping them quiet as a victim, might be the fear of having their phone taken away as part of a punishment. This may sound silly in the face of sexual abuse, but adolescents phones are at the heart of their social lives and peer interactions outside of school.
In typical fashion this post is longer than planned. So, I may write and post a second part to this post which advises parents how to have The Cyberstalk Talk with their child or children, hopefully before an incident occurs, but I will also advise how to talk to your child should they have been victimized (along any point of the above spectrum from receiving unwanted contact to actually having been sexually abused).
Stay tuned for Part II, or contact me to set up an appointment in which I can directly advise how to have this type of talk and cater my specific advice to the specific circumstance. Feel free to contact me anytime to set up an appointment so I may best help you in a manner specific to the circumstances, even if you are seeking advice as to how to most effectively have the pre-emptive talk.
In the meantime, keep the lines of communication open with your child, and as difficult as it is, I suggest strongly to fight the urge to press them with the third degree. That would be the way to almost assure that you learn nothing and leave you more concerned that you already were.
Take it light and don’t forget the important role self-care plays in parenting!