This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
Stalkers have always existed, but their tactics have evolved over the years to take advantage of the anonymity and wealth of information now available on the Internet. In fact, you are now more likely to be a victim of cyberstalking than you are to be stalked in real life. But this doesn’t mean you are defenseless. There are ways to lower the odds of your child becoming a victim.
To keep your children safe from cyberstalkers, you need to learn all you can about it, including what it looks like, why it’s dangerous, and how you can prevent it.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is the repeated use of technology—such as emails, text messages, social media platforms, and search engines—over time to cause another person, or group of people, to fear for their safety. A form of cyberbullying, this behavior often involves an invasion of an individual’s privacy and can be emotionally devastating to its victims.
Moreover, cyberstalking is not something that will go away on its own. In fact, statistics show that cyberstalking tends to escalate in over 70% (PDF) of cases.
Cyberstalkers use the following methods to harass their targets:
- Tracking a person’s location by secretly installing a GPS device on his or her car.
- Sending (real or fake) sexual photos of someone to that person or his or her friends and family.
- Doxing (posting an individual’s personally identifying information online) someone.
- Hacking an individual’s email, texting, and social media accounts, and sending messages from these accounts to harass or blackmail that person.
- Ordering goods and services on behalf of the targeted individual.
- Sending threatening emails to someone or that person’s loved ones.
- Releasing confidential or fake information about someone to embarrass him or her.
- Creating fake social media profiles, incendiary websites, and malicious blogs targeting an individual.
Recently, a Texas deputy sheriff was charged with cyberstalking a 12-year-old Massachusetts girl, whom he met while playing the online game Minecraft in 2014. He forced the girl to stay in contact with him for several years, demanding that she send him hundreds of explicit photos, threatening to publish the photos and to sexually assault her.
“No one has ‘right’ to make you feel scared, harassed, etc. If you’re feeling the slightest bit unsafe, connect with an Internet- and media-savvy trusted adult.”—Julia Hengstler, technology, privacy, and educational specialist
Another example of cyberstalking is that of Roni Jacobson, who met her cyberstalker when she was a young teenager in summer camp in 2001. What began as a friendship quickly turned into 15 years of harassment. He ended up writing damaging letters to her employer, spoofing her email address and phone number to send messages to her friends, and complaining about her to the FBI and FCC.
Kids don’t understand the dangers of cyberstalkers
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are potential hunting grounds for cyberstalkers. Unfortunately, kids don’t see the danger as real—nearly 40% of children don’t bother enabling their social media privacy settings. This means anyone on the Internet can easily view the contents of their profiles.
“Another reason why stalking online may be more attractive to perpetrators is because they can easily pursue their targets from a geographically-distant location, making it exponentially harder to identify, locate, and prosecute them.”—Sameer Hinduja, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Even if your child’s profile is private, the people he or she has friended still have access to everything your child has ever posted. And this information can be used against him or her if a “friend” turns out to be dangerous, which is the case with most cyberstalking incidents. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the percentage at 75%.
“Unless kids know someone ‘IRL,’ they cannot be 100% certain of who they’re really talking to online. I check followers on my kids’ private accounts often, along with looking to see who’s liking their photos. If it looks like they’ve allowed a stranger to follow, I tell them to block.”—J. J. Cannon, author of @Sophie Takes a #Selfie
Online safety tips
Beyond the standard online safety measures—like installing antivirus software, keeping your child’s computer in a public area of the house, and talking to him or her about the dangers of engaging with strangers on the Internet—you should follow these additional steps to reduce your child’s risk of being cyberstalked:
- Explain to your child what kind of online behavior is unacceptable: Often, kids are unsure of their boundaries and what type of behavior violates those boundaries.
“Protecting kids online should be child-centric and look to engage, educate, and empower them, instead of prohibiting and restricting what they can look at.”—Deepak Tewari, founder and CEO of Privately
Find out what platforms your child is using: Kids tend to gravitate to social platforms that their parents don’t know about yet.
- Make sure your child knows he or she can always come to you: Your child needs to feel safe coming to you with his or her concerns. For example, don’t threaten to take away your child’s devices if he or she breaks any online safety rules. This will only discourage your child from ever reporting a problem. This is especially important regarding sexting behaviors, which children are often too ashamed to tell others about.
“Experimenting with sexting can make youth vulnerable, not only to predators, but also because shame can prevent them reaching out to adults for help when it’s most needed. Consider using a sexting agreement.”—Julia Hengstler
- Search for your child’s name on the Internet: You need to find out if any of your child’s personal information is exposed to cyberstalkers, who could use it to track him or her online. Remove any items that reveal his or her location, age, school, or home address.
- Tell your child to never share personal information online: The best reason to avoid sharing personal information is that once you post something online, there is always the chance that someone can find it again, even if you’ve deleted the original post. To be extra safe, teach your child to always think twice before he or she hits “send.”
“Oversharing personal information as well as creating and posting cruel or exploitable content in social media/gaming can increase risks of harassment, stalking and other challenging situations.”—Richard Guerry, cybersafety educator and founder of IROC2
- Keep your child’s device secure: Tell your child to not let anyone else borrow his or her computer, tablet, or phone. Cyberstalkers can use tracking devices (sometimes secretly attached to the back of your child’s computer) to monitor their targets.
“Devices can cyber-stalkers too, gathering our personal information in exchange for free info (or ads!)… be aware of what you share!”—Diana Graber, founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise and author of Raising Humans in a Digital World
- Tell your child to always log out: Make sure your child always logs out of whatever program he or she is using before moving away from his or her device. Your child should also use password-enabled screensavers.
- Teach your child about good password management: Show him or her how to create strong passwords.
- Safeguard your child’s online calendars: Have your child make any online calendars private—or delete them entirely. A cyberstalker who gains access to this information will be able to know where your child will be at a certain time.
“Check your privacy settings. It’s not about who you keep out, but who you let in!”— Joseph Yeager, cybersafety advocate and founder of Safety Net of PA.
- Make your child’s social media accounts private: This restricts who can see what your child posts. As part of this process, make sure your child changes the account settings to ensure that his or her profile doesn’t appear in the search results for his or her name.
“Everything we post online is public, permanent, searchable, exploitable, copyable, shareable, and often for sale by those you know, you don’t know, and just as importantly, many social media vendors as well.”—Darren Laur, safety and violence prevention expert and co-founder of The White Hatter
- Turn off the location tagging in your child’s photos: This location data in the photos your child posts on social media or photo-sharing sites can reveal sensitive information, such as when and where the picture was taken. And check to see that your child’s pictures don’t show your street address or the name of his or her school.
“While your teaching your children about online dangers, and the importance of not interacting with strangers, make sure to share with them that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Sexual predators and human traffickers woo youth with promises of money, jobs, gifts, friendships, and more. They should never, never, never meet or share their location with strangers.”—Lisa-Michelle Kucharz, professor of Media Law and Communications – New Media
- Teach your child to always change passwords when he or she breaks up with someone: It’s a good idea for teenagers to change all of their passwords every time they split from a romantic partner—even if they think that their ex doesn’t know any of their passwords.
How to tell if your child is being cyberstalked
To find out if your child is experiencing cyberstalking, you need to have a conversation with him or her about whether anyone is making him or her feel unsafe online.
You should also look for the following behaviors that might indicate your child has a cyberstalker:
- He or she spends an unusual amount of time online, in private.
- Your child is receiving phone calls at strange hours.
- He or she acts suspiciously around you when he or she is online.
- Someone you don’t know is giving your child gifts.
If your child is showing signs of being cyberstalked, the most important thing you can do is to avoid judging him or her and get your child to open up to you. Regardless of the situation—the sooner you know all the details, the sooner you can stop it.
“Cyberstalkers (like stranger danger) aren’t always strangers. Be sure kids know how to ‘block, report & tell’ an adult if they feel threatened, even if it’s someone they know.”—Sue Scheff, author and family Internet safety advocate
What to do if someone is cyberstalking your child
Most people’s experience with cyberstalking lasts an average of two years. And this can significantly affect your mental and emotional health. Luckily, cyberstalking a crime in all 50 states, and many police departments have cybercrime units. This means that there are ways to make it stop.
If someone is cyberstalking your child, you should do the following:
- Make copies of everything: Take screenshots and record phone calls, but don’t alter them in any way. You should also keep copies of all communications with ISPs or law enforcement agencies.
- Tell the person to stop: Clearly tell the cyberstalker that you want him or her to stop contacting your child.
- Notify your local police: Make sure you bring two copies of every document you have. If you know the cyberstalker’s location, you can notify the police department there or file a report with both precincts. Be sure to get a copy of any report you file.
- Use someone else’s phone or computer to seek help: If you suspect that your cyberstalker is tracking your communications, don’t use your own devices to ask for help. Doing so might enrage the individual and place you in greater danger.
- Block him or her: Your child can block people on his or her email, social media platforms, and phone.
Whether your child is dealing with a cyberstalker or you are looking for more information about how to prevent it, there are plenty of resources available to help you, including the following:
To learn more about removing your personal information from the Internet, feel free to give us a call. We are available 24/7 to discuss your particular situation. We also offer the following articles on online privacy: