It is often noted, with a wink, a nod, and clever internet memes, that FaceBook and other social media outlets offer an opportunity to stalk exes from grade school to grad school. As such, stalkers and stalking online are serious problems.
These tongue in cheek pronouncements recognize that stalking has emerged from the traditional venues of dark shadows and back alleys to the online world of gigabytes and data transmissions. Cyber stalking has become a serious problem whenever obsession and the internet combine.
Broadly defined, stalking online must meet four primary elements when being considered in court proceedings: means, target, intent, and nature of the transaction.
To begin, stalkers need the means with which to stalk electronically, which involves the electronic transmission of information or communication by a computer or other electrical means. The target of the harassment must be a person that is identified via a unique address who receives the electronic missive. The intent of the internet message must be malignant with the goal of coercing, intimidating, or harassing the target. Finally, to meet legal definitions of cyberstalking, the transmission must be considered obscene, lewd, profane, or of a lascivious nature that threatens illegal or immoral acts.
The anonymity of the online world has engendered an increase in stalking online. The problem was first addressed legally in California in 1999. The Golden State legislation was brought into being as a result of perceived threats against celebrity victims.
The first actionable case resulted in a six-year prison term for a man who placed a woman in his sights for harassment. Another man was given five years of formal probation as punishment for his online activities targeting an actress. Under the conditions of his probation, he was forbidden to use computers and subject to mental health counselling. A third case resulted in a demand for psychiatric evaluation prior to sentencing to prison.
A full decade after these first laws were logged into the books, California extended anti cyber stalking protection to schools. This extension called for students to be suspended or expelled in response to online harassment was enacted in 2011. The legislation also mandated that schools establish policies and procedures designed to address the problem of online cyberstalking. Additionally, Section 1708.7 of the California Civil Code establishes provisions for the online perpetrator to be sued for general, special, and punitive damages for their activities.
The rising threat that cyber stalking presents to our nation’s youth, was not limited to California, however. Florida passed a 2008 law, known as the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act.” This law was passed in the wake of Jeffrey Johnston’s suicide, following revelations that the 15-year-old was subject to a campaign of long term online bullying prior to taking his own life. The measure also targets school funding, which would be suspended if school administrators fail to inform parents of a dangerous situation in a timely manner.
Similar measures were subsequently taken in Missouri, Massachusetts, Texas, and Washington, among other states, to help stem the deleterious effects of malignant online harassment.
The power of the internet can be harnessed for both good and evil. Unfortunately, evil is frequently given the primacy of place, and that placement has had severe consequences for youngsters who find themselves in the crosshairs of online harassment by fellow students.
Like all bullies, internet cyber stalkers are at their strongest when hiding in the shadows behind the fear they instil in their victims. In the wake of school crackdowns on physical bullying, the practice has moved online and is much more difficult to act against. Whereas the black eye is used to signal a campus problem, the cuts and abrasions of online cyber stalking are not easy to see until it is too late as illustrated by the tragic rash of student suicides.
Containing and reversing these threats to our nation’s youth requires an unending vigilance, and the willingness to stand up and speak out against this new form of harassment. Laws, counselling, awareness, and understanding are all arrows in society’s quiver that must be constantly attended to if the scourge of online cyberstalking is ever to be brought to a screeching halt.
As such, schools, students, parents, and faculty are on the front lines of this electronic war that hurts the victims with invisible wounds that only become evident following a tragedy.