Parents cannot, and should not, prevent children from having access to electronics. However, this means that an abundance of information from people around the world is available to them. It also means that children can reach out to anyone, at any time. For the most part this is fun and educational; other times those interactions can take an ugly turn, from cyberbullying to cyberstalking.
What is the difference between cyberbullying and cyberstalking? Depending on which experts are asked, there might not be much of a difference at all. For the sake of identifying factors, a significant difference in kids bullying each other online and someone being stalked could be age. Many cases of cyberbullying occur when everyone involved is a minor. Many cases of cyberstalking involve adults. Whether a child and an adult, or all adults, cyberstalking can be a very scary situation.
In February 2016, David Matusiewicz, his sister Amy Gonzalez, and his mother Lenore received life sentences for cyberstalking David’s ex-wife, culminating in the death of the ex-wife and her friend. According to prosecutors, this was the first successful application of federal law on cyberstalking. Though they did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed his ex-wife, David’s father did before exchanging gunfire with police and then killing himself, the court found David, his mom, and his sister all guilty of stalking, harassing, intimidating, and helping plan the murders. In this case, the court affirmed that cyberstalking is a crime. Flaming, trolling, name-calling, lurking, and online disagreeing or fighting are not, generally speaking.
Cyberstalking is often inaccurately defined as simply looking at someone online, but true cyberstalking is continual and unwanted contact with someone, that causes them to be afraid, distressed, or anxious, physically or psychologically. So, checking out your old high school friends once in awhile is not cyberstalking. Feel free to continue lurking. But, once you contact someone and they are afraid of that contact for any reason, it becomes cyberstalking.
No parent wants to deal with, let alone worry about their child being cyberstalked. Start with these six ways to help protect children from being cyberstalked:
- Understand how cyberstalkers meet their victims. Most frequently, the stalker and the victim have an in-person relationship already. In some cases, one or both parties moves certain aspects of the relationship online because it is illegal or socially frowned upon. In other cases, one party desires to pursue an increased relationship and the other does not. Being online can make things seem more casual, safe, or private than in-person. In other cases, the cyberstalker is not trying to befriend or have a relationship, instead they are impersonating their victim, posting as the victim with lewd or embarrassing content found through in-person interactions, social media, or even search engines.
- Have access to kids’ communications – in all forms. Every household is different, but children should understand that parents need access to online actions. Not as an invasion of privacy, but simply for protection. Parents can establish and keep trust between themselves and their children by occasionally scrolling through emails, texts, and other online activity with the child present. Kids should be aware that parents will be looking in on them (even sometimes when they aren’t there if deemed appropriate by the parent). It is up to the parent on how often access is needed, if at all. But, having access will ensure that if something goes wrong, discovering the who and how is not so difficult.
- Talk to kids! As always, an open line of communication is best. It’s not just asking how the school day went or who they sat with at lunch, parents should make sure they know their child’s friends and the places that they like to hang out. If there are any changes in online usage, a quick question might help get to the bottom of it. Maybe they are bored of Facebook, but maybe they are getting unwanted messages that they are trying to avoid. Maybe they just discovered Snapchat and are having fun making faces into the photo shells therein, but maybe they are on Snapchat for other, less innocent reasons.
In addition to knowing what they are doing online, talk to children about cyberstalking so they know what to look out for, for themselves and their friends. There’s no need to terrify them, but if an adult, especially one that they don’t know, contacts them, they should be comfortable expressing that to their parents or another trusted adult.
- No parent is alone in this fight. Online social media sites are trying to protect their users. In fact, in March of 2012, Facebook was able to flag a conversation between a 13-year-old Florida girl and a man in his thirties. The two were only loose connections on Facebook, but were chatting about sex and planning a meet up. Facebook alerted police who were able to arrest the man the next day. Facebook has struggled with the backlash of this as well, as users complain about having conversations policed by the company. In this case, the potential benefit of saving a child’s life far outweighs the downside.
- Parents should not be afraid to speak out when they believe a child cannot. If you see it, report it. No matter whose child is affected, if everyone is vigilant in reporting to the authorities and/or the social media sites about inappropriate behavior, predators might no longer view cyberstalking as easy and anonymous.