A massive 76% of Australian women under 30 have experienced online harassment. Sexual threats, cyberbullying, cyberstalking and abuse about women’s physical appearance are rife as perpetrators take aim safely behind their screens, but the effects on victims extends into their offline world as well.
It was in February 2014 that TV personality and author Charlotte Dawson took her own life after a long battle with depression. She was vocal about the online abuse and trolling she experienced two years earlier, after anonymous tweeters barraged her with a stream of awful messages. As a consequence, Charlotte spent two days at St Vincent’s Psychiatric Emergency Care Centre.
Charlotte was pivotal in raising awareness about online harassment, but sadly, things have gotten worse for many people.
A friend of mine, Rachel, was similarly worried about the mental health and safety of her 13-year-old daughter, Bella, after repeated online harassment.
Bella had just started High School and struck up a relationship with an older boy. But when she broke up with him several months later, she was subjected to two years of online and offline harassment.
Bella’s ex-boyfriend and his female friends bombarded Bella’s Facebook and Instagram accounts with awful messages ranging from disgust at her outfits to threats that she’d “better not turn up to parties or she’ll regret it.”
Rachel reported it to the social media platforms who did very little and Bella blocked the perpetrators – but they simply set up new accounts to continue the online abuse.
The abusers even managed to get the passwords of mutual friends and disguised themselves as those ‘friends’ online in order to strike up conversations with Bella and harass her again.
The teachers weren’t interested and told Rachel the kids should sort it out themselves. Evidence of the abuse was collected so the police had enough to warrant speaking to the boy’s parents, but his parents admitted they were powerless to control him and disinterested in the whole situation. This made it worse.
Threats against Bella from the ex-boyfriend’s female friends for involving the police were so bad that Bella became anxious and refused to go to school. The harassment affected her friendships, her schooling, her confidence, and her mental health.
After much professional counselling, lessons in self-defence and family support, Bella realised she had no other actions within her control other than to move schools. After two years of online and offline harassment, she switched schools and severed ties with all mutual friends and has never been happier.
Other women are not so lucky. According to a recent study conducted by Norton by Symantac, Online Harassment: The Australian Woman’s Experience, 60% of Australian women state that harassment in the online world is on the rise.
Melissa Dempsey is the Senior Director, Asia Pacific, for Norton by Symantec, and says the survey uncovers the prevalence of harassment against women in the online world, and sheds new light on the extent of the problem in our society.
“It also exposes the high emotional toll online harassment is having on Australian women and brings to light the uncomfortable truth that some women are feeling violated, abused and frightened by their online experiences,” she says. “It’s Norton’s mission to inspire people to go boldly online, confident they are safe from all forms of harm. Protecting the world’s online community is no easy feat, but more awareness and better collaboration between the IT industry, policing and law enforcement agencies can play an enormous role in reducing online harassment and preventing it from becoming an established norm in our digital society. With this knowledge we can address the issues faced and raise awareness about what people can do to better protect themselves online.”
It’s the mental health impact on victims that has most concerned. “beyondblue’s work is increasingly being carried out in the digital world,” explains Georgie. “Cyberbullying can have a long-lasting impact and it can be a risk factor for depression, anxiety and suicide. It’s important we look out for each other, both in the physical and the online world, and try to tackle online harassment to help and potentially save lives.”
Here’s a snapshot of the survey’s findings…
Online Harassment: What’s Happening?
It’s ugly. The survey showed abuse and insults, trolling, cyberbullying, malicious gossip and rumours, cyberstalking, privacy breaches, threats of physical violence, graphic sexual harassment, death threats, identity theft, threats of sexual violence and rape, sextortion and revenge porn – amongst other things.
Women are going online and being barraged with negative comments about their physical appearance, weight, gender, social class and background, religion, feminism, fashion and beauty care, employment status, race and culture, politics, physical disability and even their views on celebrities, musicians and sports teams.
The Perpetrators: Who’s Harassing?
For Bella, the perpetrators were mainly known, but girls from other schools joined in on the action too. According to the survey, which interviewed women over 18, the majority of perpetrators – 35% – are unknown. But offenders include a range of people from former friends and ex-partners to fellow students and work colleagues – and include both men and women.
Their Modus Operandi
It’s easy for perpetrators to pick up their phone or harass others from the safety of their homes. The majority are harassing women via social media (66%), but 22% are sending abuse via email and 17% through text messages.
But why are they doing it? The survey showed one of the main reasons perpetrators harass was out of spite, while a worrying 24% did it simply for attention seeking purposes. But there are many reasons, including jealousy, aggressive personalities, insecurity, general trolling, the anonymity of the internet, a sense of entitlement, to be ‘funny’, rivalry, mental health reasons, relationship breakdowns, sexual aggression, peer pressure, prejudice and more.
The Offline Effect: The Emotional Toll Of Online Harassment
Every woman is unique and every form of harassment different. For Bella, the constant threats left her withdrawn, anxious and feeling unsafe. She wouldn’t go to parties in case the perpetrators where there, it divided her friendships, and she felt powerless to do anything.
Her self-esteem plummeted and it took a long time for her to regain her confidence.
The results from the survey only reinforce what Bella’s mum already knows, with a massive 30% of women left feeling anxious and worried, and 22% feeling depressed. The ripple effect interferes with every aspect of their lives, with many women feeling scared, vulnerable, helpless, and becoming increasingly withdrawn and isolated, like Bella.
The Action: How Women Respond To Online Harassment
While some women give as good as they got, the majority of women who experience online harassment block, unfriend or ignore the perpetrator, with only 10% reporting the harassment to the police. What’s more concerning though is, like Bella, 14% of women feel powerless to do anything.
Anyone who has experienced online harassment will reveal how difficult it is to stop the abuse, with many women saying when they experienced harassment and reported it to the social media platforms, they had to collect evidence of the abuse before the perpetrator’s account was blocked. But what’s to stop them setting up another account?
More concerning is that women don’t feel like thee abuse will be actioned, with 58% of women believe that the police and authorities need to start taking victims more seriously.
A Safer Future: What Women can Do
- Review your online presence
- Check your security settings
- Protect your mobile device
- Regularly change your passwords
- Recognise the problem and move quickly
- Don’t respond to the perpetrator
- Keep all records and evidence
- Be supportive to the person being targeted
- Report it to the relevant authorities immediately
- Contact website operators and social media platforms to remove content or block contacts
- Reach out to organisations such as beyondblue for emotional support
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. Norton by Semantec is a long term supporter of beyondblue and has donated approximately $700,000 to raise awareness and address cyberbullying. For more helpful tips, visit Norton.