The Internet may seem removed from real life, but for stalking victims, it can seem even more dangerous.
Victims of cyberstalking suffer more fear and take more actions to protect themselves over time than those who are stalked in the physical world, according to a study published in Justice Quarterly, a journal for law enforcement and legislators.
The research was based on the 2006 Supplemental Victimization Survey from the National Crime Victimization Survey (the most current data available). As of the end of last year, all states have laws that address cyberstalking, cyberharassment or both. (In legal circles, cyberstalking usually includes a threat of harm, while cyberharassment does not.) Sanctions for those found guilty of cyberstalking range from misdemeanors to felonies.
Online harassment and threats cause more fear among victims than real-life stalking and prompt more "protective measures," such as switching email accounts and locking down or even closing their Facebook and other social media accounts, the researchers found. It also winds up costing victims more than twice as much, Matt Nobles, a researcher from Sam Houston State University in Texas, said in a statement. He partnered with colleagues at Weber State University, Arizona State University and the University of Cincinnati for the study.
Women are more likely to be stalked in everyday life, but they make up a smaller percentage of online victims — 70 percent versus 58 percent. The average age of female victims was higher than might be expected, averaging around 38 years old for online victims and just over 40 for offline victims.
While both groups of victims reacted to harassment and threats with fear and self-protective measures, a larger proportion of cyberstalking victims took time off from work, quit their jobs, dropped out of school or avoided family and friends.
The changes didn't come cheap. Costs, including legal fees, child care costs and moving expenses averaged $1,200 for a cyberstalking victim, compared with $500 for traditional stalking victims.
Over time, people who have been stalked in their own environs returned to their normal living patterns, but cyberstalking victims continued to add self-protective measures. The researchers suggested that a stalking episode may provoke an immediate reaction for many victims, while the cyberstalking condition tends to build and become more severe over time.
However, continued protections may have more to do with the ubiquity of the Internet and less to do with psychological effects. Disappearing from the digital world can be more difficult to do than leaving town. See also: 5 Steps to Digitally Disappear .