The father of Molly Russell who tragically took her life at age 14, has appeared on multiple news networks arguing social media companies should do more to protect vulnerable young people. And, in January, a widely publicised report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists stated that social media giants should share their data to aid research into the harm their apps might cause young people. The pressure is mounting for the lives of young people to be protected in the digital sphere. And rightly so. But, there is another side to the impact of our online generation who’s every step can leave a digital footprint. Are we more vulnerable to stalking than ever before?

The word ‘stalking’ may invoke images of a hooded figure tailing cars and hiding in the shadows, but it’s not as cut and dry as that stereotype. According to Women’s Health, stalking is repeated contact that makes you feel afraid or harassed. This includes repeated emails, texts, calls, DMs, and general online contact. At the beginning of this year, the Netflix show You showed this behaviour through the medium of Joe Golberg, the ‘creepy’ bookstore worker who obsesses over women. But Joe is much more than just ‘creepy’. He is a stalker (and spoiler alert: murderer). He tracks his victim, Beck, via her Instagram stories, photos, her Facebook and even tracks her phone. He follows her too, of course, hiding in alleys and doorways. But the worrying thing that You shows is just how easy it is to know where someone is, follow their movements and make contact. Joe is a dramatised, ‘Netflix-ised’ character, but his ability to stalk Beck so easily is still terrifying. Even in season 2, where his next girlfriend, Love, has a private social media presence, he is still able to get access to her whereabouts via her friend’s open accounts. Love has taken a step to assert privacy in her online space, and yet she is still vulnerable. Similarly, the Netflix show ‘Dirty John’, depicted the true story of a jealous and dangerous ex-husband who stalked his ex-wife and her family, harassing them and her through hundreds of calls and emails. He even contacted the woman’s daughter’s employers to try and tarnish her name and destroy her career. 

Shows like this can be positive for public perception. Depicting the behaviour of stalkers, will hopefully, increase recognition of dangerous and alarming patterns of behaviour. Joe isn’t just ‘obsessing’ over a girl, he’s stalking her, and his capacity to kill shows audiences that he isn’t just weird and creepy, he is dangerous. But, these aren’t just outlandish stories that attempt to scare us for entertainment or awareness. Stalking is much more prevalent than we might assume. 1 in 5 women are stalked at some point in their lives as are 1 in 10 men. And since the Suzy Lamplugh Trust set up the National Stalking helpline in 2010, they have had over 30,000 calls and emails from victims of stalking needing their help. Stalking isn’t a rarity, in fact, it’s worryingly common, especially amongst women. And the internet makes us more vulnerable. 

Our phones make us contactable 24 hours a day. This is great for making us feel connected with friends, but it also makes victims more vulnerable. Author and Journalist Bella Mackie recently wrote an article for Vogue about her experience of cyberstalking, and how her stalker was able to locate an old family address, constantly harass her social media, threaten her family via email and make her live in fear. The ease at which her perpetrator was able to do this was, and is, terrifying. But, even if you turn your social media accounts ‘private’, email addresses are notoriously easy targets, and there is an unfortunate wealth of data a stalker can still access online. Our digital footprints are hard to reduce. You might assume that, because of this, the statistics would reflect a massive uptake in online harassment cases in the past few years. But surprisingly that’s not the case. According to the Office for National Statistics UK (ONS), in 2018, just 15% of harassment and stalking offences were flagged as having an online element. This seems low, primarily because of the vast digitisation of our lives that has taken place in recent years. However, these figures are notoriously unreliable. ONS has stated that there is “limited data” and that “given different factors affecting the reporting and recording of these offences, the police figures do not provide a reliable measure of current trends.” 

These ‘different factors’ are up for speculation. The fear invoked by stalking can mean that online crimes sometimes go unreported. Similarly to domestic violence cases and rape cases, survivors feel helpless and terrified, and therefore, scared to report what is happening to them. It may also be the case that there is a lack of common understanding of what ‘stalking’ actually constitutes. The common assumption is that stalking exists ‘offline’, and not necessarily in the digital world. Hopefully, TV shows like ‘You’ will be positive in changing that narrative.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust has stated that the majority of cases the National Stalking Helpline (NSH) deal with both involve elements of online and offline contact. These charities are a lifeline for those vulnerable to stalking, and the vital advice the NSH gives can guide and inform people into the intricacies of the legality around stalking. And, although we are more vulnerable to stalking in the form of online harassment, each piece of online contact can, fortunately, be recorded, screenshotted and kept to retain evidence and proof. This is a grim reality, but the digital footprint works both ways, and victims can show evidence of what has happened to them, and hopefully who the perpetrator is. 

This does not mean we should live our lives in fear. We should be able to navigate freely through the excitement of the online world. Social media can be a fantastic and useful tool for sustaining and developing friendships. But an awareness of the kind of behaviour that crosses a line, and makes us feel threatened, is definitely needed. Women’s Aid and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust are havens of advice and information that can help us recognise these behaviours and take steps to report them and protect ourselves. The NSH can talk victims through the steps they need to take to help them to feel safe online and in person. There are laws in place to protect victims of cyberstalking, and it is a crime that is being treated with increasing severity as the pressure to protect us online grows. 

As of 20th January 2020, the government has given police new powers to protect victims of stalking. The New Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) will mean that courts can move quicker to ban stalkers from contacting victims online and in person. This will also enable interim SPOs to be implemented, providing victims with immediate protection while a legal decision is being made. This will give victims more time to recover, and hopefully safeguard victims from fear and harassment. Attitudes and awareness are changing, and the law is changing with it.

Words: Amelia Whyman

Artwork: Lily Lambie-Kiernan