Staying indoors is no longer the best way to avoid bumping into people you don’t want to see. In fact, given the ubiquitous presence of technology, your own kitchen, study or bedroom can become the place where harassers can reach you most easily say Emma Short and Joanna Bawa from the University of Bedfordshire.

Cyberstalking is the threatening presence of an unwelcome individual, taken online. Like terrestrial stalkers before them, cyberstalkers intrude into the lives of victims in frightening and unpredictable ways - except this class of harassers uses technology to mediate their activities.

So widespread is this phenomenon that significant efforts are being made to understand and tackle it. Earlier this year, the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research (NCCR) was established at the University of Bedfordshire to address the urgent need for research and analysis of this rapidly growing threat.

The centre is interdisciplinary, drawing upon the expertise of professionals in different fields including computer security technology, psychology and the law. Just a few months on the result has already been incredibly productive, with centre staff contributing to European conferences, receiving invitations to speak publicly and providing evidence at parliamentary enquiries.

The NCCR has also formed partnerships with related organisations including the Network for Surviving Stalking, the Crown Prosecution Service, Safetynet Associates Group and NAPO, the Trade Union and Professional Association for Family Court and Probation Staff.  

The centre’s first major piece of research, the ECHO pilot project, has attempted to more clearly define the ‘cyberstalking relationship’. Principally this involves identifying the specific communications technology-mediated actions performed by one party and directed at another, which may be interpreted by that party as threatening, frightening, intrusive or otherwise unwelcome.

It also seeks to identify the specific experiences of the 2nd party in response to the actions of the first party. The centre will apply its combined knowledge and expertise to the ECHO findings to understand the phenomenon and begin constructing the methods and techniques which will ultimately reduce the prevalence of this growing problem and minimise its effects.

Key findings

The findings of the ECHO project were published as part of a debate hosted by law firm, Collyer Bristow on 7 July 2011. Cyber Stalking & Bullying - A Global Epidemic drew on ECHO to provide significant insights into the means by which victims are harassed, the effects of such harassment and the typical experiences and responses of victims. For the first time, we have a clear and evidence-based picture of what cyberstalking means to victims in the UK.

Prevalence of technology

Cyberstalkers use an impressively wide variety of technological means to deliver their abuse. Emails, phone calls, text messages and social networking sites are all deployed with equal enthusiasm across work, home, university or school.

Harassers use technology to invade multiple aspects of their victims’ lives, leaving them feeling they have no escape. The data shows that victims of multiple modes of harassment are more likely to experience more severe and adverse psychological impacts.

Overall impact of cyberstalking

The psychological effects of cyberstalking can be devastating, producing verifiable psychological trauma, regardless of whether the victim ever actually meets their harasser. The data collected by the ECHO Pilot Survey confirms that victims of electronic harassment report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other adverse impacts on their day-to-day life.

The fears created by cyber harassment behaviours are varied and extreme, varying for the individual affected. Data suggests that men are more likely to fear damage to reputation, whereas women are more likely to focus on fear of physical harm.

Cyberstalking damages multiple aspects of victims’ lives, from study to professional activity to their relationships with others. Survey respondents reported changing or losing jobs, isolating themselves by giving up social activities, and having important relationships break up.

One clear message from the ECHO project is that many victims of cyber harassment are frustrated by a perceived lack of available help and support. Police and internet service providers are identified as primary centres of responsibility, in terms of providing preventative measures (such as effective security technologies); providing an active response to stop harassment; and providing support to those affected by cyberstalking.

This adds to the growing debate surrounding calls for legislative change which will allow police to act, and compel ISPs to provide formal processes and services to deter harassers and support their victims. 

What next?

In the coming months NCCR researchers will be analysing the results of the second wave of the investigation. This will reveal more about the motivation of cyberstalkers and drill down into the subtle relationship between stalker and stalked.

Questions under consideration include: how does a cyberstalking relationship begin? What enables a potential harasser to feel entitled to harass another? How does a sense of ownership develop such that one person believes they are owed the time, energy and emotion of another and to punish or threaten them if these things are not forthcoming? Even long after a real life relationship is over, harassment can continue online. Are there elements of such behaviour which become intrinsically rewarding?

The centre will continue in-depth research into these and other questions, building the first database to specify and classify the details of cyberstalking behaviour. In addition to the details of the research, the NCCR findings will provide a growing platform of information and awareness for the police, ISPs and the wider community.

Hosted by Baroness Howe, the official launch of the centre took place at the House of Lords on 20 October.