The school bell rings and Anna* hastens out of the room, leaving everybody behind. On the way home, her thoughts drift back to an earlier lunch break, where she sat alone at a table. As every other day, she silently begged that her classmates would spare her from the “fat bitch”, “ugly A”, “loner” calls, but they didn’t. At least when she is at home, it is easier to distant herself from the calls that often resonate in her head relentlessly. Home is indeed a safe haven without classmates and name-calling.
Suddenly, her phone beeps. Anna unlocks the screen and the words come at her immediately. “Fat bitch”, “ugly A”, “loner”. How did they get my Whatsapp number? Nowhere seems to be a safe haven anymore. Not even home.
Tom* opens his Facebook. Scrolling through the newsfeed, he finds an interesting article about gay marriage in Ireland, which makes him smile. Below the article, people are busy giving their comments. As he skims through them, his smile freezes. Okay, gay marriage is a controversial topic but does that justify comments like “stupid faggots” or “go die”?
Without hesitating, Tom responds to the comments, fiercely defending the LGBTQ community. Two weeks later, Tom deletes his Facebook account. Charlotte* hatefully comments on his profile picture, sends him links to dubious websites and posts insults on his timeline. Dylan*, Eric* and Fred* join in. They are people whom Tom has never even met before.
Anna and Tom’s situations are not unique. They are examples of cyber harassment, loosely defined as offenses that involve the use of technology. While technology and the Internet are beneficial in many areas of our everyday life, its use is also accompanied by risks. Falling victim to cyber harassment such as in the fictional cases of Anna and Tom, is one of them.
How is online different from offline harassment?
The risk of being harassed is obviously not unique to cyber space as it is also a present danger offline. However, with the rise of the Internet, online and offline harassment increasingly go hand in hand. As in Anna’s case, harassment may start out offline but quickly enter into cyberspace.
This raises the question of how online harassment differs from offline harassment.
Anonymity is the first distinction that comes into mind. In cyberspace, perpetrators have the possibility to disguise their identities better. Each name on a social media profile can be fake, such as profile pictures or any other kind of information. By disguising their identities, perpetrators enjoy a feeling of protection.
At the same time, the anonymity of the Internet gives everybody – not only perpetrators- the chance to misrepresent their true self. Slipping into the role of someone else without facing direct consequences becomes possible.
The absence of face-to-face confrontation desensitises and encourages online perpetrators to do something they may not have otherwise done “in real life” because they do not have to witness or deal with their victims‘ suffering in person. Inhibitions and scruple are more easily overcome online.
Anonymity gives rise to two problems. Firstly, the uncertainty about the identity of the perpetrator creates a situation in which the victim cannot know if the perpetrator is a next-door neighbour or someone who is sitting behind a computer miles away. Secondly, seeking effective judicial remedy is almost impossible. Who do you want to charge if you have no clue who the perpetrator might be?
The second distinction to offline harassment can be found in the “24/7″ nature of the Internet. As illustrated in Anna’s situation, it is hard to escape the Internet because it is literally surrounding us everywhere. In an offline space, a perpetrator does not have the opportunity to harass its victim 24/7. In cyberspace, harmful actions are just a couple of mouse clicks away. It does not require an intensive amount of time, nor is it limited to a specific time of the day. In this sense, communication on the Internet does not happen in real-time, which gives the perpetrator further power over his or her victim. Anna’s classmates will most likely not go to her house at 2 am in the morning to scream insults at her window, but the same hindrance does not apply in a Whatsapp message.
Thirdly, the Internet offers an easy opportunity to mobilise people to join in the harassment. Chances of finding supporters are higher in an online community of 3.5 billion Internet users than say, in a football team of 11 players or classroom of 30 students. In the Internet, distance is not relevant – it connects people, who otherwise may not know of each other at all. For a victim, it must be incredibly hurtful to have unknown number of people witness his/her humiliation.
Fourthly, the victim can never be sure what is happening to his or her online data as everything, no matter if it is a post, video or picture, can be shared and saved within the blink of an eye on the Internet. The Internet never forgets.
What can you do?
Maybe you don’t know anybody around you that has experienced cyber harassment. Maybe this makes it difficult for you to put yourself in a victim’s situation and grasp the impact of cyber harassment. But maybe, one day you may encounter cyber harassment and become a victim yourself.
To minimise the risk of cyber harassment, there are at least eight easy steps you can take:
There is also something you can do NOW, after reading this article. Fill out this short survey by People Against Cyber-harassments and Threats (PeopleACT). Help them gather information about cyber harassment to make the Internet a safer place for all.
*A fictional name.
 Statista (2016). Number of Internet users worldwide from 2005 to 2016 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/273018/number-of-Internet-users-worldwide/ on 26th October 2016.