Research undertaken in January 2021 found that 59.5 percent (or 4.66 billion people) of the world’s population are active Internet users. With accessibility via mobile devices only increasing, that number is set to surge even higher.
The Internet is a fantastic tool to manage finances, shop, expand our knowledge and to socialise with others. Particularly in pandemic times, we’ve turned to online networking platforms to keep in touch with family and friends and alleviate feelings of social isolation.
Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to online communication, from revenge porn to cyberstalking.
What is cyberstalking exactly?
Put simply, cyberstalking refers to using the Internet or other electronic means to harass and intimidate a chosen victim. Cyberstalking can take many forms, including extortion, blackmail, threats, impersonating the target via fake social media accounts or even spreading malicious rumours about the victim.
A lot of the discourse around cyberstalking addresses the impact on women, but leading cybersecurity software company, Kaspersky, notes that up to 40% of victims of cyberharassment are men. While these crimes can be perpetrated by spurned suitors (like ex-partners or dates gone wrong), the reasons vary greatly. Other common reasons include monetary gain, jealousy or even mental illness.
This in-depth interview with Aaravindha Himadra outlines some of ongoing struggles and legal ramifications faced by victims of cyberstalking. He also discusses some of the possible motivations for perpetrators.
What is the impact of cyberstalking?
The impact of cyberstalking or bullying varies. At its best, it’s an inconvenience and an infringement of your right to privacy. At its worst, cyberstalking can lead to victims losing their employment or even their homes due to loss of income and reputation. Even more shockingly, in 2018, a case of cyberbullying among middle-schoolers caused a 12 year old Florida girl to take her own life.
How can you keep yourself safe online?
There is no sure-fire way to prevent cyberstalking (other than unplugging completely), but there are a few simple steps you can take to drastically reduce your chance of being targeted.
- Manage Your Privacy Settings
Do you know how much information you’re sharing on your social media platforms? Facebook has a ‘privacy checkup’ button in your settings that will allow you to see what strangers can see when they land on your page. Your best option to stay secure online is to set all your posts and photos to ‘Friends Only’ and only accept friend requests from people you have met in person. Without this, strangers posting in the same groups as you may be able to view everything from your partner’s name to your workplace.
- Be Wary of Apps Using Geolocation Settings
It might seem like a fun way to let your friends know you’re at the local pool hall but using apps like FourSquare or checking in on Facebook can give others a lot of information about your whereabouts. Not only does it show people where you currently are (and potentially advise them that no one is at home), but it also shows a pattern of your movements that could later be used to locate you.
- Use a Gender-Neutral Screen Name
If you’re using a dating app or even a social bookmarking site like Reddit, do not use your real name. Try to select a gender-neutral screen name that is true to your personality without giving too much away. For example, if your screen name references your local football team, it will instantly give anyone reading it an idea of your rough geological location. Also steer clear of a name like ‘Guaclover1995’, as this hints at your birth year, which is often used as a security question for accounts.
- Be Password Smart
Cyberstalkers can use your accounts to gain access to important personal information, from personal photos to banking details. Keep your information safe by installing anti-virus software to prevent hacking and by setting a reminder to change your passwords every 30-45 days. Where services, such as your email account, have an option to auto-generate a password, use this. Computer generated passwords are more difficult to guess than those we’ve created ourselves.
The virtual world is filled with opportunities and possibilities to explore. However, it’s important to take steps, as outlined above, to protect yourself and your personal information from malfeasance when interacting online. By playing it safe, you can enjoy everything the digital world has to offer without risking your emotional or financial health.