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What is Online Harassment?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Online harassment is repeat unsolicited and abusive contact, with the goal of intimidating or frightening the target. It may also include an offline component; sometimes it starts offline and moves online, or the harassment escalates and the target begins to experience attacks offline as well. Many nations have laws covering online harassment and related activities like cyberstalking. There are measures people can take to address the problem, including complaining to Internet service providers and requesting police assistance.

Several characteristics tend to be seen with online harassment. The first is the abusive nature of the unwanted contact. Someone who sends obnoxious forwards all the time is not necessarily harassing the recipient, and likewise, spam, while annoying, is not a form of harassment. When the unsolicited material starts to include threats, abuse, and bullying, it is a cause for concern. Online harassment can also include stalking components, like following the target across all the sites he uses, contacting the person's friends, and publishing unkind or untruthful material to humiliate or upset him.

This activity can escalate very quickly and it is sometimes difficult for friends and family to identify. The victim may not discuss it and may delete or hide evidence of harassment out of shame or fear. In cases where people are also being stalked, bystanders may not connect the dots and realize that a friend, coworker, or family member is being followed around the Internet by another person. In some cases, it contributes to bullying, and multiple people may join in. Harassers may also start sending text messages, calling, and taking other offline actions against their targets.

People who experience online harassment can take a number of steps. Engaging directly with an abusive person can be dangerous, but people can send an email requesting that the harasser stop contact. It is a good idea to copy this email to the abuse department at the harasser's ISP. In a situation where the behavior occurs in a school or workplace setting, copying the email to school or work officials can be helpful as well. This provides clear documentation about the situation and can lay the groundwork for taking disciplinary action.

It is also a good idea to keep copies of material sent by a harasser. Many people delete the unwanted communications, and this can make it harder to get police assistance. People could ask friends or family to accept forwarded communications and store them, or to take screen shots of abusive messages. If people feel endangered or the harassment starts to interfere with work, school, or life, they can contact the police with the documentation and request assistance. It is also advisable to seek assistance from the service provider the person doing the harassment uses; it may be a violation of the terms of service, and the person's account could be closed or suspended.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Buster29 — On Jul 04, 2014

I have a blog that can be a little controversial at times. I allow people to post their own opinions on whatever I write about in my blog columns. I don't allow people to use anything but their real names, however, and I think that's why I don't see a lot of online harassment or cyber bullying at my own site. If someone is allowed to post anonymously or under a false identity, he or she might feel like harassment of others is okay. I also moderate posts if I think the poster is being deliberately mean to others.

I have also experienced cyberstalking myself, and I can't say I liked it much. I wouldn't call myself a celebrity by any means, but my blog is very popular and there are some people who leave very inappropriate comments. One woman left a message containing personal details about my family members, my home town and my workplace, even though I never mention any of that on my blog. If people want to find you on the Internet, there are plenty of ways to do it.

By Phaedrus — On Jul 04, 2014

I used to participate in a community online forum, and a lot of the discussions involved local politicians and local issues. What I didn't realize was that many of the anonymous participants were actually the politicians themselves, or very close friends of the people being mentioned. If they felt offended, the discussions would turn into online harassment and even cyberstalking.

There was a very contentious race for county sheriff a few years ago, and the incumbent was a real bully, at least in my opinion. Several of his friends, under assumed names, registered for that online forum and started harassing anyone who voiced a negative opinion about the current sheriff. It got to the point where someone posted my real name, address and phone number, then threatened to send some deputies to my home to "discuss" my problem.

I tried to report all of this cyber bullying to the owner of the online forum, but he said he didn't want to get involved. If I didn't like what was going on, I needed to deactivate my own account. What these other members did anonymously was not his concern.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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