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date: 25 February 2024

Cyberstalking Victimizationfree

Cyberstalking Victimizationfree

  • Erin FaucherErin FaucherWest Chester University
  •  and Jaeyong ChoiJaeyong ChoiWest Chester University

Summary

The creation and accessibility of technology have led to an increased use of the virtual world. The percentage of Internet users is increasing, especially with the advent of social media, which subsequently heightens the risk of cyberstalking incidents. Generally, cyberstalking involves the repeated pursuit or harassment of a target by a stalker through digital technology. However, there is no universal working definition of cyberstalking that has been agreed upon by policymakers and academics. Still, there are noticeable patterns involving methods of and risk factors for cyberstalking perpetration and victimization. Moreover, perceptions of cyberstalking among the general population and victims have been studied empirically. Research on cyberstalking ranges from the issues involving definitions and prevalence of cyberstalking to intervention and prevention efforts to stop stalking behaviors in cyberspace. A review of such literature on cyberstalking can shed light on what is known and unknown regarding cyberstalking.

Subjects

  • Victimology/Criminal Victimization

Introduction

Cyberstalking is a critical issue that deserves empirical scrutiny. Although the definition of cyberstalking varies in existing literature, generally, it is categorized as a set of communicative behaviors, using technology, that ultimately harass, threaten, or cause a victim psychological harm (Reyns et al., 2016; Wilson et al., 2022). The creation and accessibility of technology have led to an increase in cybercrime in general (e.g., cyberbullying; Choi et al., 2019). Incidents of cyberstalking have also increased due to the rise of the internet (Fox et al., 2014). This increase indicates a need for research about cyberstalking in order to remain current on the technological changes that might impact cyberstalking.

Specifically, statistics about increased internet usage have concerning implications for the future. According to Internet World Statistics (2022), the percentage of internet users was 69% of the global population, with North America having the highest percentage of internet users at 93.4%. The use of social media has been found to impact teenagers especially. Vogels et al. (2022) found that 54% of American teenagers found it hard to quit social media and that the rate of teenagers who use the internet almost constantly has increased from 24% in 2015 to 46% in 2022. This increased exposure to the internet may heighten the risk of cyberstalking victimization (Hango, 2016).

Cyberstalking is a particularly difficult crime to study and prevent due to incomplete national and global data on the subject. Although many countries have broadened their legal definitions of stalking to include online behaviors, cyberstalking is often not labeled as a distinct crime. This provides challenges for law enforcement, especially when establishing jurisdiction; for instance, at what point does cyberstalking victimization fall out of the jurisdiction of a police department? (Chang, 2020). Additionally, varying definitions of cyberstalking can make it difficult to collect accurate data (Wilson et al., 2022). Without a database that can adhere to specific criteria for cyberstalking, incidents of crime are difficult to measure.

Even though data about cyberstalking is limited, more research exists that covers offline stalking. Although differences between cyberstalking and offline stalking exist, cyberstalking has often been considered as one form of general stalking. Some studies have directly compared cyberstalking with offline stalking. In one such study, Nobles et al. (2014) make a comparison between cyberstalking and general stalking through their sample of 65,272 adults, which included offline stalking and cyberstalking victims. This study found more fear reported by offline stalking victims but increased reporting to police from cyberstalking victims. Therefore, the finding indicates that it could be less shameful for cyberstalking victims to report compared to offline stalking victims. Another study, conducted by Dreßing et al. (2014), sampled 6,379 internet users to compare cyberstalking to offline stalking. They found a similar prevalence for both crimes and found that men overall were the most likely to cyberstalk or offline stalk; however, women were more likely to be perpetrators of cyberstalking than of offline stalking. These differences show that, even with the similarities between cyberstalking and offline stalking, cyberstalking should not continue to be overlooked or simply viewed as an extension of offline stalking.

Another factor that makes the study of cyberstalking critical is the negative impact that cyberstalking can have on its victims. Those who are victimized often experience diminished mental well-being, such as depressive symptoms and an increase in stress (Dreßing et al., 2014). Worsley et al. (2017) describe negative effects that cyberstalking victims may experience such as fear, depressive symptoms, negative emotional states, and lowered general well-being and life satisfaction, all of which can lead to coping mechanisms that involve modifying behavior out of fear of the perpetrator. Overall, it is apparent that cyberstalking victimization should not be overlooked in academia. This article will examine several aspects of cyberstalking, including existing definitions, prevalence, patterns and methods, the factors associated with perpetration and victimization, and general perceptions. Prevention efforts and intervention advice will be addressed toward the conclusion.

Definition of Cyberstalking

The lack of a single, universal definition of cyberstalking contributes to discrepancies in academic literature. For instance, Wilson et al. (2022) define cyberstalking as a consistent usage of technology to communicate with, harass, or threaten a target. On the other hand, Reyns et al. (2016) characterize cyberstalking as the pursuit or monitoring of a target repeatedly by a stalker through digital technology. While the first study’s definition requires a cyberstalker to directly make contact with the victim, the second study’s definition includes actions such as monitoring a target, which could be unknown to the victim. It can be impossible to generalize the findings of studies when each research design utilizes a different definition of cyberstalking.

Wilson et al. (2022) describe several elements of cyberstalking definitions that can vary across studies. First, the presence of fear in a victim only was considered in 30% of the 33 studies examined. Studies that do not include fear might report higher numbers of cyberstalking incidents and may not be comparable to studies that do include fear. Second, when cyberstalking occurs, there is often no time frame included that defines how much time is needed between incidents for the pattern of behavior to constitute cyberstalking, nor are there any requirements for the duration of the victimization. Similarly, repetition of behaviors, as a condition for cyberstalking, was found to be vastly irregular, with more than half of studies (55%) not listing any number of repetitions in their definitions of cyberstalking. Finally, the largest inconsistency across these studies was in the description of behaviors that constituted cyberstalking. The inclusion of some behaviors as cyberstalking, and the exclusion of others, was unique for each study. Moreover, certain studies used broader terminology that could encompass many specific behaviors. The inconsistencies between studies measuring cyberstalking victimization demonstrate the lack of a universal definition for the crime.

Cyberstalking is often not specifically mentioned in legal texts due to the recent prevalence of internet usage. However, the more general crime of stalking is often included along with subsections that can be applied to cyberstalking. The U.S. federal law provides a definition of stalking. Federal statute 18 U. S. C. § 2261A establishes stalkers as whoever:

1.

travels in interstate or foreign commerce or is present within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or enters or leaves Indian country, with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person, and in the course of, or as a result of, such travel or presence engages in conduct that—

a.

places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to—

i.

that person;

ii.

an immediate family member (as defined in section 115) of that person;

iii.

a spouse or intimate partner of that person; or

iv.

the pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse of that person; or

b.

causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person described in clause (i), (ii), or (iii) of subparagraph (a); or

2.

with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person, uses the mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that—

a.

places that person in reasonable fear of the death of or serious bodily injury to a person, a pet, a service animal, an emotional support animal, or a horse described in clause (i), (ii), (iii), or (iv) of paragraph (1)(a); or

b.

causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person described in clause (i), (ii), or (iii) of paragraph (1)(a)

It should be noted that there is no specific mention of the word “cyberstalking,” nor are there any specific characteristics of cyberstalking given that would allow for a clear definition of cyberstalking. Yet, the second part of this statute, which refers to electronic communication, allows for the criminal prosecution of cyberstalking offenses.

As another example, in the United States, each state has a different legal definition for stalking, which, with one exception, includes some aspect of cyberstalking. According to Hazelwood and Koon-Magnin (2013), 49 out of the 50 states included electronic communication under stalking, with the exception being Nebraska. In their qualitative analysis, Hazelwood and Koon-Magnin described six critical themes to measure how cyberstalking was incorporated into stalking definitions, and they identified 16 total sub-themes. The critical themes are intent, anonymity, fear, prior criminal justice involvement, jurisdiction, and age. The sub-themes include the point at which the perpetrator is told to stop, provocation, extortion, third-party involvement, permitted use of a device, threat, family member involvement, language or gestures, prior contact, protective orders, and, finally, jurisdiction. Hazelwood and Koon-Magnin’s analysis shows that the themes of intent and fear were found in all 49 states (once again, excluding Nebraska). Extortion was the least commonly reported sub-theme, cited in six states. Nebraska (having 0 themes) and Arizona (having three sub-themes) were reported as having the least effective legislation against cyberstalking. Meanwhile, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah all included 13 cyberstalking sub-themes in their definitions of stalking, having the highest number of sub-themes of all the states. Even though cyberstalking is not expressed as a distinct crime from stalking in legal texts, it is clear how protections for citizens against cyberstalking victimization apply in several states.

Cyberbullying Research Center (n.d.) provides information regarding cyberstalking laws across the states in the United States. This information indicates that different states appear to consider different elements of cyberstalking. For example, some state laws (e.g., Alabama and Arizona) cover stalking or harassment that involves “electronic” or “digital” or “technology” or “device” or “software.” Some states explicitly mention cyberstalking (e.g., Louisiana and Maine), but others do not. Some state laws mention “emotional distress” (e.g., Colorado and Connecticut) or “fear” (e.g., Florida and Georgia). Although these laws keep changing, it is clear that there is no agreed-upon definition of cyberstalking across different jurisdictions.

Prevalence of Cyberstalking

Even though cyberstalking has become easier with more accessible technology, there is no international data collection for cyberstalking victimization. Instead, researchers have been collecting many estimates for cyberstalking via surveys. In general, the prevalence of cyberstalking documented by researchers varies, a variation which can be attributed to the numerous available definitions of cyberstalking. Using a sample of 169 respondents in an online survey, Bocij (2003) utilized both a general and a specific definition for cyberstalking in order to determine the prevalence of victimization among their sample. Bocij developed the more general definition of cyberstalking by using the following behaviors: making threats or sending abusive emails, texts, or chat room messages; posting false information about another person; impersonating another person; ordering goods and services under another person’s name; sending another person computer viruses; and trying to monitor and access confidential information. About 82% of the sample reported at least one of these behaviors. Meanwhile, the stricter definition used in the study specified that the behavior must involve the following: a reliance on the use of technology; two or more incidents having taken place; the same person having perpetrated all incidents; and distress experienced by the victim. Using these criteria, 21.9% of the sample participants reported being victimized. The marked drop in the prevalence rate when using stricter criteria demonstrates the significance of the definition of cyberstalking to how it is recorded.

Additionally, a study conducted by Dreßing et al. (2014) found that, out of their sample of 6,379 German respondents to an online questionnaire, more than 40% of participants indicated that they had experienced online harassment at one point in their lives. This study categorized cyberstalking as unwanted contact or harassment through the internet. However, upon adding stricter criteria for what constituted harassment (i.e., the duration being at least two weeks and the harassment causing fear), the rate dropped to 6.3%. Even between the Bocij (2003) study and the Dreßing et al. (2014) study, there is variance between the definitions of cyberstalking that are used; therefore, the prevalence rate is different.

One of the most reliable sources of cyberstalking prevalence estimates comes from the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau administers the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) on behalf of the Bureau of Justice Statistics to understand criminal victimization in the United States. They sometimes collect crime data other than conventional street crime. The most recent nationwide assessment of cyberstalking victimization, conducted through the NCVS’s Supplemental Victimization Survey in 2019, indicated that around 3.4 million individuals at least 16 years old in the United States had experienced cyberstalking within the preceding year. This estimate is equivalent to 1.3% of all U.S. residents aged 16 or older (Morgan & Truman, 2022). However, some U.S. studies indicate a higher prevalence of cyberstalking victimization. For example, Reyns et al. (2018) showed that 3.4% of female college students in two U.S. universities were victims of cyberstalking.

Internationally, in cyberstalking data that has been collected, again differences between definitions of cyberstalking provide complications for research. Choi et al. (2022), using a sample of 7,109 middle and high school students in South Korea, reported a cyberstalking victimization prevalence rate of 0.73%, which was measured by unwanted and repeated contact causing fear and anxiety through email, online messages, blogs, or social media networks in the past year. A second study conducted by Mikkola et al. (2022) compared students from ages 15–25 in Finland, the United States, South Korea, and Spain. Researchers asked participants whether they felt that they had been a target of cyber-harassment and provided examples of spreading false information on the internet or sharing photos without permission. It was found that South Korea had a significantly lower rate of victimization than the other countries (6.5%) and that, unlike in the other countries, males were more likely than females to be victimized. It is likely that the manner in which each of these studies presented the concept of cyberstalking to participants is responsible for the difference in results.

Similarly, Kabiri et al. (2020b) looked at 408 Iranian female college students and determined that 0.855% of the sample were victims of cyberstalking. Participants responded to whether any of the six items had occurred to them in the past three months: (a) being harassed or annoyed online repeatedly after asking the perpetrator to stop; (b) being violently spoken to or threatened with physical harm repeatedly after asking the perpetrator to stop; (c) receiving unwanted sexual advances repeatedly after asking the perpetrator to stop; (d) receiving exaggerated messages of affection repeatedly after asking the perpetrator to stop; (e) being contacted or receiving an attempt to contact online repeatedly after asking the perpetrator to stop; and (f) being contacted by different people who send demanding, disclosive, or needy messages repeatedly after asking the perpetrators to stop. Meanwhile, Pereira and Matos (2016) examined cyberstalking victimization in Portugal, finding that in their sample of 627 Portuguese adolescents, 61.9% of their sample reported having been repeated victims of cyberstalking. The items measured to indicate cyberstalking were as follows: “receiving exaggerated messages of affection; receiving excessively ‘needy,’ disclosive or demanding messages; receiving pornographic or obscene pictures or messages; receiving sexually harassing messages; obtaining someone’s private information without permission and using the victim’s computer to obtain information about others” (p. 258). Once again, the difference in recorded prevalence is strongly impacted by the specificity of the definitions used by researchers and the information given to participants. Clearly, comparisons between studies that use different conceptualizations of cyberstalking cannot be drawn to reveal accurate data. Thus, there is a need for a standardized way to measure and record cyberstalking.

Patterns and Methods of Cyberstalking

The methods used by cyberstalkers to contact or monitor their victims are critical to understanding cyberstalking as a whole. The monitoring of another person’s social media accounts (using platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook) can give a cyberstalker information that can be used to harm or intimidate a victim (Marcum & Higgins, 2021). Additionally, cyberstalkers can obtain listening devices, camera access, or GPS location information to monitor victims who are using their devices (Marcum et al., 2018). Similarly, Navarro et al. (2016) found that addiction to the internet was significantly related to cyberstalking perpetration due to risk-seeking behaviors present in people addicted to the internet. Thus, consistent internet usage could enable cyberstalking by providing convenient methods to engage in these behaviors.

Although the circumstances behind each incident of cyberstalking victimization are unique, there are some commonalities within the patterns of cyberstalking. For example, it is critical to investigate the most vulnerable population of cyberstalking victimization. It should be noted that the relationship between cyberstalking and race is unclear in research and needs further clarification (Wilson et al., 2022). On the other hand, with regard to gender, many studies have found young women to be the most vulnerable population for cyberstalking victimization. Dreßing et al. (2014) found that women and persons with fewer than 12 years of education were more likely to be cyberstalking victims. Likewise, Choi et al. (2022) noted that women were more likely to be the victims of stalking and cyberstalking (see also, Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). As previously mentioned, cyberstalking can be used by an ex-partner to regain control over their partner. This would be consistent with research that finds women as the primary victims involved in intimate partner violence (IPV) situations (Thompson et al., 2006). Understanding the trend of women being victimized by cyberstalking will be a crucial aspect of preventing cyberstalking.

Additionally, there is often a preexisting relationship between cyberstalkers and their victims (Dreßing et al., 2014). This pattern contradicts the belief that cyberstalkers are strangers to their victims. Often, cyberstalking originates from situations involving IPV. According to Dreßing et al. (2014), both offline and online stalkers tend to get to know their victims first, and almost 35% of cases of stalking involve ex-partner stalking. In the case of cyberstalking, interactions between perpetrators and their victims could take place online in a chatroom. Additionally, Burke et al. (2011) contribute to the growing literature regarding IPV and cyberstalking in their study of 804 undergraduates from a university. They found evidence supporting the notion of technology facilitating controlling behaviors from perpetrators and the invasion of privacy of IPV victims. Moreover, monitoring was mentioned as one of the possible actions taken by a perpetrator of IPV.

Various risk factors for IPV and cyberstalking behaviors must be explored. Paterline (2020) found that IPV was a statistically significant indicator for stalking behaviors. Thus, situations involving IPV have a higher likelihood of also leading to cyberstalking. The use of technology to keep control over a partner could be linked to low self-control, according to Marcum et al.’s (2016) study. In this study, researchers examined 611 undergraduate and graduate students at a university who were in a relationship and found that low self-control was a significant predictor of participating in cyberstalking behaviors (e.g., monitoring password-protected accounts without a partner’s consent). Lowered self-control could also potentially explain why cyberstalking is more likely to occur in younger populations.

Methods of cyberstalking as it is related to IPV can be further dismantled into three primary types by March et al. (2022). First, passive cyberstalking (i.e., checking online accounts, monitoring the victim’s online behaviors, or checking the online status of a person) appeared to be primarily motivated by attempting to learn about a potential intimate partner and was largely perpetrated by women and men. Second, invasive cyberstalking consists of checking others’ messages, logging into their accounts, or checking phone and computer history without the victim knowing. Each of these items occurring without the victim’s knowledge is less likely to fit stricter criteria of cyberstalking that requires fear experienced by the victim. Third, the behaviors described as duplicitous behaviors were posing as another person on social media, using a fake account, and using location services on a person’s phone or computer to see where they are located. These behaviors can be especially harmful if a current or former intimate partner is stalking the victim. Each of the methods used by cyberstalkers can lead to decreased safety for the victim.

Beyond research on IPV and cyberstalking, another pattern is found among victims of cyberstalking. The three most prevalent outcomes of cyberstalking victimization are emotional outcomes, physical outcomes, and financial outcomes. First, emotional outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are common in the aftermath of cyberstalking victimization (Short et al., 2015; Worsley et al., 2017). Second, physical outcomes include difficulty sleeping or working (Reyns & Fissel, 2020; Worsley et al., 2017). Finally, financial outcomes may occur when a cyberstalker is able to obtain personal financial information from their victim to threaten them, and victims of cyberstalking are more likely to suffer burdensome financial costs at their own expense (Nobles et al., 2014).

As a result of these outcomes, victims may or may not make efforts to report the crime or cope with their emotions. In his study, Finn (2004) examined 339 students at a university and found that approximately 10%–15% of students had been victims of online harassment, and only about 7% of those students reported this harassment to authorities. Even among those who reported, almost half of them felt unsatisfied with the outcome of the report. In another study, Fissel (2021) found that victims who were cyberstalked for between one month to less than one year were about five times more likely to report to law enforcement compared to those whose victimization was approximately one week. To cope with their victimization, cyberstalking victims are more likely to guard against further online pursuits or react to their perpetrators with anger (Tokunaga & Aune, 2017). Ultimately, reporting and coping with the crime of cyberstalking is important for the victim to prevent revictimization and to address the negative emotional consequences that result from the victimization. To fully understand the motives and behaviors behind cyberstalking perpetration and victimization, it is useful to further discuss the theoretical perspectives that contribute to cyberstalking.

Factors Associated With Cyberstalking Perpetration

It is critical to investigate what specific factors are associated with cyberstalking perpetration. To understand these factors, researchers have looked at multiple theoretical perspectives. First, many studies have examined the levels of self-control in cyberstalkers using Gottfredson and Hirschi’s self-control theory (SCT; Baron et al., 2007; Diamond et al., 2017; Fox et al., 2014; Holt et al., 2016; Louderback & Antonaccio, 2020). SCT assumes that crime provides short-term pleasure, and thus individuals who have low self-control are “less able and willing to resist the immediate pleasures associated with criminal behavior” (Hay & Forrest, 2006, p. 742). One study conducted by van Baak and Hayes (2018) indicated that cyberstalking perpetration is more likely to occur when the perpetrator exhibits low self-control. Essentially, when a perpetrator has a more impulsive personality, it will be more difficult for them to resist chasing the thrill of cyberstalking perpetration.

Second, the relationship between moral disengagement and cyberstalking has been explored in research. Moral engagement is a facet of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, which maintains that moral disengagement is used by criminals to overlook their internal moral standards in order to continue criminal actions (Fissel et al., 2021). It has been suggested that it is easier to disengage with morality in an online setting when engaging in a form of cybercrime, such as cyberbullying (Renati et al., 2012). Renati et al. (2012) examined a sample of 819 adolescents to measure levels of moral disengagement among perpetrators of cyber aggression. It was found that perpetrators of cyberbullying and harassment also demonstrated lower empathy and higher levels of moral disengagement compared to victims and uninvolved individuals. It is evident that more research must be conducted about moral disengagement of internet users in general and possible connections between disengagement and cybercrime behaviors (Runions & Bak, 2015).

Another popular criminological theory that has been utilized by many studies examining cybercrimes is the routine activities theory (RAT), conceptualized by Cohen and Felson (1979). Specifically, RAT consists of three primary elements which can determine whether crime occurs. A motivated offender, a suitable target, and the lack of a capable guardian are typically all involved when criminal activity occurs (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Wick et al. (2017), using their sample of 298 U.S. college students, explore the functionality of this theory as it relates to online cyber-harassment. It was found that although a lack of capable guardianship was difficult to measure in cyberstalking incidents, online disclosure was likely to predict cyberstalking perpetration through the means of motivation for an offender and finding a suitable target.

Fourth, general strain theory (GST), as developed by Agnew, has been applied to cybercrime in prior research. GST involves strain, which is a result of the interference of positively valued goals, the removal or threat of removal of positive stimuli, and the presentation or threat to present negatively valued stimuli (Agnew & White, 1992). When strain occurs, Agnew and White (1992) found that criminal behaviors are more likely to occur. Curry and Zavala (2020) tested the relationship between GST and cyber dating abuse using a sample of U.S. college students. In this study, they found that variables that represent GST (e.g., physical abuse victimization and anger) were significantly related to cyber-dating abuse victimization and perpetration. Similarly, Lydon et al. (2011) used a college sample and found that some internet users used social media to cope with their anger by expressing their anger to their ex- partners, and this venting behavior was a significant correlate with cyberstalking.

There are additional factors that should be explored. For instance, personality traits could also potentially predict cyberstalking perpetration. According to Smoker and March’s (2017) study looking at Dark Tetrad traits (i.e., Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism), higher levels of any of these traits were strongly related to cyberstalking perpetration. Therefore, unlike the previous theories (with the exception of SCT), this research suggests that cyberstalking perpetration might be likely to occur regardless of a person’s choices or decisions, assuming that they have personality traits that are conducive to criminal activity.

Similarly, psychosocial factors might impact cyberstalking perpetration. Ybarra et al. (2007) used a psychosocial lens to understand the factors associated with youth online harassment perpetration. Among youths who harassed others online, the researchers found overall a strong relationship between drug and alcohol use, poor parental support, and a quick temper. Although this study primarily applies to juveniles, insight is given into some factors that could influence a person to begin cyberstalking to begin with. Additionally, research has observed a relationship between internet addiction and cyberstalking (Fissel & Reyns, 2019). Internet addiction could provide more opportunity for potential offenders to meet potential victims and could potentially make it easier for the perpetrator to self-justify their actions.

One notable factor of cyberstalking perpetration is gender. Generally, society has assumed that men are the perpetrators of cyberstalking and that women are the victims (Finnegan & Fritz, 2012). Contradictory to this sentiment, van Baak and Hayes (2018) found that women were more likely to cyberstalk; however, it was presented that this result might be due to women reporting themselves as engaging in cyberstalking behaviors more than men. Smoker and March’s (2017) study also discussed gender and found that women were more likely than men to engage in covert cyberstalking. Though there has been much speculation on the reason for this observation, further research should be conducted to understand why women might have different motivations than men to engage in cyberstalking. On the other hand, Finnegan and Fritz (2012) found that in their sample of 349 Canadian undergraduate students, the participants were equally likely to view specific behaviors as cyberstalking, regardless of gender. Factors that contribute to cyberstalking victimization help explain the reasons that cyberstalking exists and give insight into how to prevent the crime.

Factors Associated With Cyberstalking Victimization

One significant contribution of victimology lies in the distinction between the factors explaining cyberstalking perpetration and those linked to cyberstalking victimization. This distinction arises from the fact that perpetrators and victims often possess dissimilar characteristics. The factors associated with cyberstalking victimization are often examined through theoretical perspectives, as well. For instance, Kabiri et al. (2020b) examined a sample of 408 female university students in Iran to look at self-control theory (SCT) and online deviant behaviors. It was found that low self-control both significantly and directly impacted cyberstalking victimization. Specifically, students who identified with low self-control were more likely to engage in deviant online behaviors, which could lead to a higher risk of victimization. Moreover, data collected by Reyns et al. (2018) indicated that individuals with low self-control were more likely to experience cyberstalking victimization, with a higher opportunity for interaction between potential perpetrators and victims. Therefore, people who partake in risky online behaviors are more likely to become victims of cyberstalkers. It is presented in this study that opportunity is the mediating factor that allows crime to occur.

Leukfeldt and Yar (2016) selected a random sample of 21,800 citizens of the Netherlands and tested the three primary aspects of routine activities theory (RAT): motivated offender, suitable target, and lack of capable guardian. It was concluded that aspects of RAT that involved visibility (i.e., a motivated offender being presented with a suitable target without a capable guardian blocking that visibility) was a strong predictor for all the forms of cybercrimes measured in the study, including cyberstalking. Kabiri et al. (2020a) present an examination of RAT using the data collected from 387 female Iranian college students. The presence of a motivated offender, a suitable target, and ineffective guardianship online were observed to account for 48% of the cyberstalking victimization variance among Iranian female college students.

In their study, Reyns et al. (2016), used a sample of 1,310 undergraduate college students from the United States to compare the rates of cyberstalking victimization and online pursuit behaviors with their measured guardianship variables (i.e., living with another person, such as a parent or romantic partner, who could prevent cyberstalking victimization). Contrary to other studies examining guardianship and cyberstalking, Reyns et al. found that the presence of another person in the household (i.e., a guardian) was correlated with a higher risk of cyberstalking victimization. It was suggested that this correlation could be attributed to the relationship between deviant peer groups and the likelihood of victimization. Finally, Choi et al. (2022) examine multiple theoretical perspectives, including guardianship, from RAT and SCT. Self-control was determined to be associated with a higher likelihood of cyberstalking victimization. This study found no specific relationship between guardianship and cyberstalking victimization; however, there was an indication of a relationship between parental relationship strain and cyberstalking victimization. Therefore, further studies were recommended to explore the operationalization of guardianship to clarify the discrepancies in existing research.

A third perspective of cyberstalking victimization is Cohen and Felson’s lifestyle RAT (L-RAT). According to L-RAT, the probability of victimization is related to people’s everyday behaviors and habits, which can make them suitable targets for victimization (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Reyns et al. (2011) investigated this theory in their study of 974 U.S. university students and found some significant results. First, online exposure to offenders has a significant effect on victimization. Second, the use of a profile tracker to act as an online guardian was found to be positively correlated with victimization, yet it should be noted that this result could be due to people experiencing cyberstalking victimization and subsequently using a profile tracker to prevent further victimization. Ultimately, further research should be conducted to determine the nature of the relationship between guardianship and cyberstalking victimization.

Outside of theoretical perspectives, other factors of cyberstalking victimization are important to study. The relationship between race and cyberstalking has not been fully explored in research, which is likely due to underreporting (Wilson et al., 2022). Similarly, there is a paucity of research regarding LGBT+ populations and cyberstalking. Without an empirical basis for measuring cyberstalking and limited research on the factors involved in cyberstalking victimization, conclusions from various research articles cannot be generalized.

Perceptions of Cyberstalking

Among the existing literature on perceptions of cyberstalking, there are two primary types of perceptions: general perceptions of those who have not experienced cyberstalking and specific perceptions of those who were victimized by cyberstalking. Victims and non-victims have varying perceptions of cyberstalking. The insight given by individuals about cyberstalking provides researchers with a deeper understanding of how a victim might react to being victimized. Perceptions of cyberstalking are often measured by examining the fear of cyberstalking and by comparing emotional responses from victims, which could lead to different actions or behaviors than those of non-victims (Brands & Van Doorn, 2022). Understanding why victims of cyberstalking might respond a certain way is critical to helping these victims recover.

Many researchers use fear of cyberstalking as a measurement tool for the public’s general perceptions of cyberstalking. In one study, Henson et al. (2013) used a sample of 838 U.S. college students to measure students’ fear of online victimization. It was found that fear of online victimization was very low overall; however, the students showed significantly more fear of online victimization by a stranger rather than by a former intimate partner or acquaintance. Clearly, the offender-victim relationship can affect the fear of experiencing cybervictimization such as cyberstalking. In another study, Pereira and Matos (2016) examined 627 Portuguese adolescents to determine the fear of cyberstalking victimization held among their sample. Overall, fear of cyberstalking victimization was low among participants, akin to the first study. However, female participants expressed higher levels of fear compared to male participants. It was also found that participants who perceived themselves as more vulnerable to experiencing cyberstalking victimization were more likely to be afraid of cyberstalking. Additionally, the data from this study indicated that more parental involvement also positively affected cyberstalking perception. This result was explained as connected to the previous finding since adolescents with higher parental involvement would likely feel more at risk for cyberstalking and express higher levels of fear.

Specific perceptions of cyberstalking can be observed when examining victims of cyberstalking. For instance, although cyberstalking victims do not feel fear about cyberstalking to the same extent as offline victimization, victims can feel other emotional responses such as depression or rage (Fissel et al., 2022). Another type of specific perception of cyberstalking is the perceived motivations of the offender, which could impact how victims react to and internalize cyberstalking victimization. Fissel et al. (2022) found that most victims do not feel as though their perpetrators have only one motivation for cyberstalking. Victims might feel as though the motivation for cyberstalking changes over time and might be influenced by their reaction to being cyberstalked. For example, a victim might initially view the perpetrator’s motivations as obsession and ignore the perpetrator. In turn, the victim might notice or feel that the motivation shifts to revenge. Notably, the type of perceived motivation affected the fear that victims felt toward their perpetrators. This finding reveals the importance of studying victims’ perceptions of their victimization. The scope of the impact of cyberstalking on the victim’s well-being can be influenced by their perceptions of the motivations of their perpetrators.

Similarly, Alghrim and Terrance (2021) found that perceptions of cyberstalkers are often influenced by stigma toward mental illness and gender differences. Their study examined 245 cyberstalking victims living in the United States, looking at many factors that affected cyberstalking perceptions. The belief that cyberstalkers needed mental help and were mentally unstable was found to be statistically significant among cyberstalking victims. Similarly, the study also found that the gender of the perpetrators affected how cyberstalking victims viewed the motivation for the crime. For instance, female perpetrators who were also ex-partners of their victims were more likely to be viewed as mentally unstable. Moreover, female cyberstalkers’ behaviors were more frequently compared to courtship actions than those of male perpetrators. Therefore, the gender identity of the perpetrator could influence which behaviors are considered normal courtship behaviors and which are considered cyberstalking. Accordingly, the participants in Alghrim and Terrance’s study were more likely to blame male victims over female victims. Once again, the traditional gender roles influenced the participants’ outlook on crime. Understanding the factors involved in cyberstalking can ultimately lead to prevention and intervention strategies that can be utilized by many demographics.

Prevention Efforts for Cyberstalking Victimization

Cyberstalking victimization must be taken seriously by policymakers due to the negative effects of the crime and the increasing opportunity for offenders. Cyberstalking prevention can occur when there is an effort made to protect individuals proactively rather than a reaction to the crime after it has already happened. Overall, prevention efforts can be made on two distinct levels. At the macro level, governments and organizations can make broad changes that can avert cyberstalking victimization. At the micro level, individuals and those involved in the private sector can make an impact through changes in behavior and awareness of cyberstalking.

Government and Organizational Prevention

Governments and organizations have the capability to prevent cyberstalking on a large scale. Developing a legal and unified research definition for cyberstalking is important for prevention efforts made by governments and organizations so that laws and policies specific to cyberstalking can be created or modified. Presently, the efforts made by law enforcement to prevent cyberstalking require evaluation. Ambiguous definitions of cyberstalking can hinder law enforcement from understanding and preventing crime. Dhillon and Smith (2017) interviewed over 100 individuals to identify their values regarding individual privacy and security. They found a desire among participants to increase police officer training about cyberstalking and a perceived need for better-defined roles and responsibilities in order for police officers to minimize cyberstalking. In other words, individuals felt as though law enforcement personnel were not effective at preventing cyberstalking due to a lack of training and a lack of emphasis on prevention of the crime. Police presence in cyberspace could serve as a deterrence for crime, but due to ineffective definitions of the crime and its jurisdiction, police might not be able to do anything.

There have been many proposed solutions from public organizations that offer protection against cyberstalking. These include updated social media and security policies aimed at helping social media and technology companies guard against cyberstalking. Research shows that updating and clearly communicating these policies to the users of a website can be effective in protecting users from cyberstalking victimization (He, 2012). Differentiating appropriate versus inappropriate online behavior could help a company or service preemptively discourage cyberstalking. Consequences for online behaviors that constitute cyberstalking should also be declared to internet users to act as a deterrent.

Additionally, one of the primary criminological approaches to the prevention of crime is situational crime prevention (SCP). According to SCP, crime can be prevented by examining features of the place in which crime occurs and adapting the environment to discourage illegitimate uses of that space, therefore eliminating opportunity for crime (Clark, 1995). Reynes (2010) examined SCP and cyberstalking and determined that place managers, or those in charge of online sites, are a critical aspect of SCP since they serve to increase the risk of committing the crime. People in charge of social media or websites can serve to limit the opportunities for offenders and can also implement security guidelines that can increase the effort needed by potential offenders, which might discourage cyberstalking.

In 2020, the Combat Online Predators Act was signed into law, which enhanced criminal penalties for stalkers by up to five years if the victim is a minor. The White House Task Force to Address Online Harassment and Abuse was created in 2022 by President Biden; the task force produced the initial Blueprint aimed at establishing more secure online spaces for both young individuals and adults, involving the integration of digital safety education into school curricula, along with offering resources and training opportunities for parents, educators, and employers. In addition, federal funding has been allocated to enhance training and technical support for law enforcement, prosecutors, educators, and victim advocates, ensuring that survivors can access help and guidance from experts who understand the intricacies and gravity of gender-based violence facilitated by technology.

Private Sector Prevention

At the micro level, individuals and the private sector have a measured amount of control over the prevention of cyberstalking. One example of micro-level control is the prevention measures taken by guardians and parental figures. Considering that cyberstalking can often affect people who are under the age of 18, parenting strategies have been suggested as one way to prevent cyberstalking victimization. Parents could have the ability to monitor suspicious behavior and control their child’s devices. Baldry et al. (2019) compared the prevalence of cybervictimization in general with the presence of parental online control, using a sample of 4,390 Italian children. The researchers ascertained that the roles of parental involvement were different based on the gender of the child, with boys often engaging more in cybervictimization than girls and with overall lower levels of parental involvement. One additional factor that was discussed to explain this relationship could be the perceived technological competence of the parent. Children who perceive their parents to be incompetent in using technology might feel less inhibited and therefore be more likely to perpetrate cybervictimization.

In addition to individual methods of prevention, new private agencies devoted to cybersecurity have arisen as a result of increased cybercrime. These agencies seek to prevent cybercrime by conducting risk assessments and predictions of criminal activities that could occur on a given website or online platform. In Button’s (2020) article, private security agencies might not impose strict regulations and licenses on their employees, which could run them the risk of becoming ineffective at protecting individuals against cybercrime. Thus, it is advised that stronger regulations are preferable over private security companies and that we continue this line of research to determine the effectiveness of these agencies. Meanwhile, another study examined the perspectives of citizens to determine how cyberstalking can be prevented. White and Carmody (2021) asked a sample of 41 U.S. undergraduate college students about their perspectives on cyberstalking prevention. This led to several advised areas of focus for cyberstalking prevention, including some form of mandatory prevention education or training for new students. The students also suggested having “real-life conversations” between upper- and lower-class students, which would consist of giving advice for avoiding cyberstalking situations without compromising personal enjoyment of the internet.

Ultimately, at both the macro and micro levels, there are additional avenues for collaboration to inhibit cyberstalking and cybercrime. Partnerships can be formed between governments, organizations, and individuals to aid in the prevention of cybercrime. According to Dupont (2004), collaborations between the police and private security companies at various levels (i.e., local, national, and international) will be beneficial for these security agencies and police to be effective at preventing cybercrime and maintaining online security. Dupont argues that both public and private organizations must collaborate to see results. Similarly, Zhu et al. (2021) discussed the importance of collaboration between micro-level factors, such as parental control, and the co-occurrence of macro-level factors, such as government regulations, to prevent cyberbullying. Despite the differences between cyberbullying and cyberstalking, future research should explore more of the prevention strategies and proposals for both forms of cyber aggression, especially regarding collaboration.

Intervention Efforts in Cyberstalking Victimization

Although prevention is key to avoiding cyberstalking victimization in the first place, prevention methods are not always foolproof. Therefore, intervention during a crime is necessary to deter criminals and protect victims from further harm. Similar to prevention efforts, this article will discuss the macro-level and micro-level interventions that have been discussed in the literature and the opportunity for collaborative interventions. Interventions at each of these levels are important for reducing cyberstalking perpetration and victimization.

Government and Organizational Intervention

Structural interventions at the macro-level can involve the government, technology companies, and networks of agencies dedicated to security. To examine some of these solutions, Al-Khateeb et al. (2017) sampled 274 individuals who are regular users of the internet. Threat modeling and risk assessment, increased liability for companies, and free security and protection for web use were found to be effective interventions against cyberstalking. These all help to provide more information to the public while also making it more difficult for cyberstalkers to continue their victimization. Notably, free security and protection for web use is a key intervention that the government can adopt. Additionally, liability for companies expands upon the previously proposed regulations as a method to both prevent and intervene in a situation involving cybercrime.

One significant intervention for cyberstalking is the Online Victimization Intervention & Reduction Model. According to Bocij (2018), this model was presented to measure the effectiveness of various types of interventions at different stages during cyberstalking victimization. These stages include initiation; intelligence; planning; action; feedback and evaluation; and resolution. Initiation; intelligence; and feedback and evaluation were determined to be the most significant and practical stages in the implementation of intervention strategies. First, as initiation involves the decision of the cyberstalker to pursue a victim, this is the stage in which prevention can occur. Second, the intelligence stage involves the collection of information that a perpetrator engages in before beginning to cyberstalk their victim. To intervene at this stage, it is recommended that information about individuals—which is often able to be controlled by the victim—is protected. Third, the feedback and evaluation stage occurs when the perpetrator assesses the victim’s reaction to the cyberstalking. Interventions at this stage can involve law enforcement and technology companies that can act as guardians and prevent further victimization.

Finally, within the macro-level intervention strategies, a collaboration between large-scale security companies and law enforcement will be critical for intervening against cyberstalking victimization. Levi and Williams (2013) suggest that many security companies are limited by a lack of resources or might have conflicting interests with other agencies, while the government is limited by the information these agencies collect. Levi and Williams contend that partnerships and open spaces for discussion will be necessary in order to establish these limitations and resolve conflicting interests. Motivators and inhibitors for collaboration between these networks require additional study. Ultimately, the macro-level intervention strategies might have the most leverage for providing interventions against cyberstalking, yet private individuals also have a role to play.

Private Sector Intervention

Meanwhile, at the micro-level, many intervention strategies focused on victims and bystanders can stop cyberstalking victimization from continuing. Reporting cyberstalking crimes is one way that victims can attempt to inhibit victimization; however, there are some perceived barriers to these protective services for victims. Fissel (2021) examined 477 cyberstalking victims to determine why victims might choose not to report their victimization. There were several key findings of this study. First, victims preferred informal to formal help-seeking. In other words, victims were less likely to report to law enforcement and would instead reach out to a family member or friend. Second, the longer the victimization continued, the more likely a victim was to report, either informally or formally. Third, the study found that victims were more likely to report to law enforcement if the offender was a current intimate partner rather than a stranger or a former intimate partner. These characteristics regarding why a cyberstalking victim may or may not report are critical to understand for further research and are useful for developing intervention programs.

Cyberstalking victims can also engage in self-protective behaviors (e.g., avoiding an offender online) when they recognize that cyberstalking victimization is occurring (Maimon et al., 2017). To measure self-protective behaviors, Vakhitova et al. (2019) examined 746 individuals who had experienced cyber abuse. It was found that 40% of the sample reported adopting self-protective behaviors and that the type of online abuse affects the self-protective behaviors utilized by the victim. For instance, a mix of direct and indirect online abuse might be easier for a victim to protect against, but completely indirect abuse can be more difficult to protect against. Additionally, victim-oriented suggestions such as education for coping strategies, the maintenance of a paper or electronic trail, or self-protection (e.g., changing a phone number) have also been shown to reduce some of the impact on victims and empower them to discourage their cyberstalker (Miller, 2012).

Although social media corporations and victims hold the most influence in intervening against cyberstalking victimization, bystanders can also have an impact on reducing cyberstalking victimization. A bystander can be interpreted as a person who witnesses an event and is presented with the choice of either action or inaction (Paull et al., 2012). People can be bystanders even on the internet when they witness online harassment behaviors directed toward another person. Hayes (2019) examined data from 600 college students to determine how many would intervene if they were a bystander. Only a third of the students surveyed indicated that they would intervene in a cyberstalking situation. Instead, they expressed interest in offering support to victims or doing nothing. Hayes suggests the use of bystander intervention training, which can educate individuals about the impact that intervention can have on the life of a victim. In both structural solutions and bystander interventions, helping to stop victimization as it occurs can prevent further negative effects for victims.

Considering that private individuals (i.e., victims of cyberstalking and bystanders who witness cyberstalking) do not necessarily have the same authority in online spaces as law enforcement and large security companies, partnerships will be necessary between these macro- and micro-level intervention strategies in order to be successful at reducing revictimization. Leppänen and Kankaanranta (2020) describe the necessity of collaboration and multiple areas of focus for intervention against cybercrime, as well as the usefulness of communication by larger companies and law enforcement to the public about how to keep oneself safe. Such intervention methods can be used as advice for future policies. However, as technology continues to grow and the methods of cyberstalking continue to adapt, future research should explore new forms of prevention and intervention that can stay one step ahead of cyberstalking perpetrators.

Conclusion

Ultimately, cyberstalking is important to study due to its increasing prevalence and the current lack of a universal definition. Cyberstalking is not an issue that will go away over time, especially considering the technological advancements and social media platforms that have been created in recent years. Rather, research about cyberstalking must also adapt to modern societal standards for internet usage, including the need for a deeper exploration of the roles of gender and sexuality in relation to this crime. Additionally, as cyberstalking transforms, with newer technologies, it will be necessary to specify a definition for the crime that can also be used to create new and updated laws. For research purposes, consistency in the measure of cyberstalking should be used to compare results from various studies. Without any congruence within the academic literature, it is difficult to understand the true prevalence and impact of cyberstalking.

Yet, conclusions about cyberstalking perpetration and victimization can still be made. Several studies found gender to be an important factor in both perpetration and victimization; however, few modern studies have tested gender as a primary variable in their studies (Adam, 2002; Reiss et al., 2022). Other common findings among various studies are that cyberstalkers are more likely to know their victim and that cyberstalking often results from intimate partner violence (IPV). Therefore, studies focusing on IPV should look for signs of cyberstalking as a potential outcome. Cyberstalking should not be overlooked simply because it is a relatively new form of victimization. The negative outcomes of cyberstalking victimization can be detrimental to victims, especially in situations involving IPV.

The implications of research about cyberstalking reach beyond and can often overlap with other forms of cybercrime. Future studies should compare various types of cybercrime to determine how each form of victimization differs. For instance, the relationship between self-control and cyberbullying has been established in research (Cho & Galehan, 2019), yet a comparison between cyberstalking and cyberbullying could explain the reason why this relationship exists for both forms of victimization. Similarly, the differences between cyberstalking and offline stalking can provide another avenue for research. Notwithstanding the lack of up-to-date research on cyberstalking victimization, there are many ways to reduce the impact of cyberstalking on its victims and on society.

Further Reading

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