While cyberstalking and online harassment can be committed by someone you don’t know, they are most often perpetrated by someone with whom you are familiar. More often than not, cyberstalking or online harassment is committed by a current or former intimate partner and the cyberstalking or online harassment may begin or get worse when you end the relationship.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a term that refers to the misuse of the Internet or other technology to stalk and harass someone. A stalker may contact you by email, social media sites, a messaging app, or through other online spaces/websites. The person may also post messages about you, share your personal information or pictures of you online to harass or scare you. Some stalkers may use technology to find/track your location and to monitor what you do online (or offline).
Even if your state does not have a criminal law specifically against “cyberstalking,” in most states, the act of repeatedly contacting or harassing a person through the Internet or other technology is still considered a crime under the state’s stalking or harassment laws. It’s important to know that even if you were originally okay with the person contacting you, if his/her behavior begins to scare you, it may be considered stalking/cyberstalking. To read your state’s specific laws, you can go to our Crimes page - just enter your state in the drop-down menu and click “Enter.”
What is online harassment?
Online harassment is abusive behavior that happens online through email, messaging, social media, dating sites, and other platforms. Abusers who commit online harassment often do it to make you feel unsafe, humiliated, scared, or emotionally distressed. They may be trying to publicly embarrass, sexually harass, threaten, dox, bully, offend, or otherwise harass you. In a relationship where domestic violence or stalking is present, the abusive person may do these things to maintain power and control over you. Depending on the abuser’s behavior, there may be laws in your state to protect you.
See the following sections to learn more about online harassment and laws that may protect you. You can also visit our Crimes page in your state to read your state laws related to harassment.
How does online harassment differ from online stalking (cyberstalking)?
Online harassment and online stalking (cyberstalking) resemble each other and often happen at the same time, but the laws covering each behavior may differ.
Cyberstalking laws usually require proof that the abuser’s harassing behaviors made you feel scared that you or someone else was in immediate physical danger, and that the abuser knew his/her actions would make you feel that way. Cyberstalking laws also usually require proof that the abuser engaged in a “course of conduct” (more than one incident).
Online harassment laws may cover a broader degree of abusive behavior. Many online harassment laws can cover just one incident and may not require proof that the abuser knew or should have known his/her actions would cause you fear. However, some online harassment laws may require you to prove that the abuser meant to annoy or alarm you (or should have known his/her actions would annoy or alarm you), and/or that the abuser had “no legitimate purpose” for his/her actions. To see how your state defines harassment, you can read the language of the law on our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
What are some specific ways that an abuser can harass me online? What laws can protect me?
There are many ways an abuser can misuse technology to harass you. Below, we define some of these abusive behaviors and describe the criminal laws that might address them. You may also be eligible for a restraining order in your state if you are a victim of harassment. See the Restraining Orders page in your state to learn more.
Harassment is when someone contacts you or does something to you that makes you feel annoyed or frightened. Some states require that the abuser contact you repeatedly, but some laws cover one harassing incident. Also, some states address harassing behavior in their stalking laws, but other states may also have a separate harassment law. See How does online harassment differ from online stalking (cyberstalking)? to learn how online harassment differs from online stalking. To read the specific language of laws that apply to harassment in your state, go to our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
A threat is when someone has communicated (through words or images) that they plan to cause you or someone else harm, or that they plan to commit a crime against you or someone else. Some examples include threats to kill, physically or sexually assault, or kidnap you or your child. Threats can also include threatening to commit suicide. Many states’ criminal threat laws don’t specifically talk about the use of technology, they just require that the threat be communicated in some way (which could include in person, by phone, or using text messages, email, messaging apps, or social media). Online threats don’t necessarily have to include words – a picture posted on your Facebook page of the abuser holding a gun could be considered a threat.
Doxing is when someone searches for and publishes your private/identifying information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons). The information they post could include your name, address, phone number, email address, photos, finances, or your family members’ names, among other things. An abuser may already know this information about you or s/he might look for your information online through search engines or social media sites. Abusers may also get information about you by hacking into devices or accounts. Sometimes they may even reach out to your friends or family members pretending to be you or a friend of yours so that they can get more information about you. The abusive person may publish your personal information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons).
Doxing is a common tactic of online harassers, and an abuser may use the information s/he learns through doxing to pretend to be you and ask for others to harass or assault you. See our Impersonation page to learn more about this form of abuse. There may not be a law in your state that specifically identifies doxing as a crime, but this behavior may fall under your state’s stalking, harassment, or criminal threat laws.
Cyberbullying is unwanted and often aggressive behavior targeted at a specific person that takes place through the use of technology devices and electronic communication methods. A cyberbully may use a phone to repeatedly send offensive, insulting, hurtful or threatening text messages to you, or may use social media to post rumors or share personal information about you. Not all states have cyberbullying laws, and many of the states that do have them specify that they only apply to students or minors (since “bullying” typically takes place among children and teens). Additionally, not all states criminalize cyberbullying but instead may require that schools have policies in place to address all forms of bullying among students. If you are experiencing cyberbullying and your state doesn’t have a cyberbullying law, it’s possible that the abuser’s behavior is prohibited under your state’s stalking or harassment laws (additionally, even if your state does have a cyberbullying law, your state’s stalking or harassment laws may also protect you).
If you’re a student experiencing online abuse by someone who you are or were dating and your state’s domestic abuse, stalking, or harassment laws don’t cover the specific abuse you’re experiencing, you may want to see if your state has a cyberbullying law that could apply. For example, if an abuser is sharing an intimate image of you without your consent and your state doesn’t have a sexting or nonconsensual image sharing law, you can check to see if your state has a cyberbullying law or policy that bans the behavior.
Cyber flashing, or cyberflashing, is when someone sends you an unwanted naked or sexual photo or video online or by text message. Most often, this could be when someone sends an unwanted picture of genitals or exposes himself/herself over live video. Cyber flashing can be done by someone you know or by a stranger. It can happen in lots of different situations - for example:
- on dating apps or websites;
- on social media;
- over text, WhatsApp, or other messaging apps;
- during a video call;
- over email; or
- through Airdrop or another app that allows someone to share files with people close by.1
Cyber flashing can be considered a form of online abuse and sexual harassment. A few states have specific laws that make cyber flashing a crime or a reason to sue the abuser for money. Other states are starting to pass laws like this.
If you are the victim of online harassment, it is generally a good idea to keep track of any contact a harasser has with you. You can find more information about documenting technology abuse on our Documenting/Saving Evidence page. You may also be able to change the settings of your online profiles to prohibit an abuser from using certain threatening phrases or words. You can learn more about these protections on Safety Net’s Tech Safety blog. You can also find legal resources in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page.
1 Information adapted from Rape Crisis England and Wales
Can I get a restraining order based on cyberstalking or online harassment?
In many states, you can file for a restraining order against anyone who has stalked or harassed you, even if you do not have a specific relationship with that person. In addition, most states include stalking as a reason to get a domestic violence restraining order (and some include harassment). Please check the Restraining Orders page for your state to find out what types of restraining orders there are in your state and which one may apply to your situation.
Even if your state does not have a specific restraining order for stalking or harassment and you do not qualify for a domestic violence restraining order, you may be able to get one from the criminal court if the stalker/harasser is arrested. Since stalking is a crime (and in some states, harassment is too), the police may arrest someone who has been stalking or harassing you. Generally, it is a good idea to keep track of any contact a stalker/harasser has with you. You may want to keep track of any phone calls, drive-bys, text messages, voicemails, emails (print out what you can, with headers including date and time if possible), or anything the stalker/harasser does that harasses you or makes you afraid. The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center has a stalking incident log that you may wish you use to record this information. Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a sample cyberstalking incident log with tips on how to best document evidence of technology abuse.
With or without a restraining order, there are things you can do to try to stay safe. Go to our Safety Tips for Stalking Victims page for more information.
Where can I get additional information?
Here are a couple of resources you may want to look into:
- Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, specializes in technology safety. Their Tech Safety blog has additional information and resources for victims of technology abuse.
- The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center also has information on their website about stalking, as well as safety tips and resources.