Harassment online includes unwanted and persistent contact as well as aggressive behaviour, threats, cyberstalking and other activities.
Users can tweak their settings to avoid individual harassers but may need to involve social media platforms or the police if the behaviour persists.
The forthcoming Online Safety Bill targets online abuse and makes tech companies more responsible for addressing it on their platforms.
What is online harassment?
Online harassment or online stalking is defined as any activity where the person on the receiving end is left feeling scared, threatened or distressed.
This can take place through social media platforms, other websites or apps, games, email or video calls among other methods and can include elements such as:
- Repeated attempts to contact someone when they have rejected contact or when it could be expected to cause distress
- Direct threats to harm or commit an offence against a person or group
- Sending abusive messages on social media platforms (trolling) or multiple people using social media to harass an individual (virtual mobbing)
- Following someone around online and persistently contacting them or harassing them in online locations (cyberstalking)
- Disclosing private sexual images without consent (revenge porn)
- Publicly releasing details about someone to potentially put them in the way of harm (doxxing)
Some of these activities have specific legislation against them while others can be prosecuted or addressed through different acts. Find out more on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) website.
One of the main things to remember about online harassment is that it is defined by the victim rather than the perpetrator, so if you think you're being harassed but the other people thinks that they're being reasonable, your reaction is valid.
How to deal with online harassment
There are steps individuals can take to reduce the impact of online harassment along with more official methods of addressing it.
We look at those in more detail below, but here are some practices users can introduce to their online lives to reduce the possibility of online harassment being as intrusive or effective:
- Read up on how to keep your personal details safe when on social media and other websites
- Review privacy settings on websites to ensure minimum information is publicly available
- Disable location tracking on apps and websites
- Change passwords regularly to reduce possibility of them being guessed or hacked
- Be cautious on public wi-fi and consider using a VPN
- Make the most of privacy settings on routers
Even with these precautions in place, users can still find themselves targeted by harassment or threatening behaviour online.
If that happens, there are a couple of important things to remember:
- Engage as little as possible
- Keep track of all communications (through screenshots or making notes etc)
At first, it can be difficult to acknowledge something as intentional harassment and so we might be tempted to continue conversations to put our point across.
However, this can be seen by the harasser as encouragement, meaning that ending communications when we feel harassed or threatened can be a rapid way of sorting the problem out.
This could be through muting or blocking a person on social media, although bear in mind that people can see when they have been blocked on some platforms.
If cutting off communication in this way doesn't help or the harassment doesn't stop, users can escalate the issue.
Report to the platform
Social media apps and websites hosting user-generated content must have strategies in place to deal with online harassment - and these will be strengthened by the Online Safety Bill currently going through parliament (more on this below).
If we feel we are the target of harassment on a platform like Twitter or Facebook, we should follow the platform's mechanisms to report the harassment.
However, there are a few things to bear in mind:
- Some reports can initially come back saying there was no sign of online harassment or threatening behaviour in the reviewed content. It's usually possible to have this reassessed but it can be frustrating.
- Nuance and implicit threats are difficult to prove from one post or communication alone, so make this clear when putting in the report.
- Harassment across multiple platforms can be so spread out that companies may not believe the content on their platform amounts to harassment.
For online harassment that goes beyond one platform or that escalates, we might have to look beyond companies themselves and go to the police.
Contacting the police
While there is no specific offence for online harassment, the practical elements of the offences we've described fall into two categories:
- Malicious communications
The Metropolitan Police defines harassment as two more or related occurrences that form a clear course of conduct.
Meanwhile, they say that a single message could be considered a malicious communication if it was grossly offensive, obscene, threatening or menacing.
The idea of reporting online harassment to the police can be intimidating, but it may be the only effective course of action for persistent or aggressive harassment.
We can report:
- Online via our police force's website
- By calling the non-emergency number 101 from any phone
The police will be able to advise whether an offence has been committed.
If they say that it doesn't constitute harassment, it's worth keeping track of all communications with the police as well as any ongoing contact from the harasser. This may help to bolster the success of any further complaints.
Who is being harassed online?
Online harassment takes many forms and can affect anyone simply because they offend someone or hold a particular belief.
That said, there are some groups that may be at higher risk of harassment online:
- Young people who spend a lot of time online and who may have a lot of information about them available on platforms
- Those with protected characteristics such as ethnic minorities and those who identity as LGBTQIA+
- Those with high-profile or contentious jobs such as politicians, activists or journalists
People in these categories may want to exercise caution and implement the preventative measures we've discussed above.
To show how online harassment can affect groups of people, let's take a look at two areas where we have some specific statistics: bullying of children and harassment of domestic abuse victims.
Harassment and bullying online can affect children of all ages.
Ofcom's annual research into children's online habits found in 2022 that bullying was more likely to occur via a device than face-to-face.
Here are some of their key findings:
- 39% of those aged 8-17 had experienced some sort of bullying (either online or offline)
- Of those being bullied, 84% experienced bullying via communications technology while 61% experienced it face-to-face
- The most common way for children to be bulled via technology was through text or messaging apps (56%) while 43% said they were bullied through social media
Ofcom also provided data split down by age to show how many children were being bullied through specific technologies across age groups:
|Any comms technology||On social media sites or apps||In online games||Through other sites or apps||Through video calls|
Even for the youngest age group who shouldn't be on social media (but frequently are), bullying via these platforms affects a significant number of children.
However, it's also notable that younger children report being bullied during online gaming more than other age groups.
Thanks to the implementation of the Children's Code (Age Appropriate Design Code), sites and apps that are intended for children must be designed with the best interests of the child in mind and focus on high levels of privacy and data control.
Domestic abuse victims
Domestic abuse can continue online, with Women's Aid warning that technology and online platforms are being used to perpetrate domestic abuse.
These abuses included:
- Monitoring of social media profiles and emails
- Abuse over social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
- Sharing intimate photos or videos online without consent
- Using GPS locators or spyware as trackers
Women's Aid conducted research that found:
- 85% of respondents said the abuse they received from partners (or ex-partners) was part of a pattern experienced offline
- 50% of respondents said the online abuse also included direct threats to them or someone they knew, with one third of these threats having been carried out
- 29% of respondents experienced the use of GPS locators or spyware on their phone
So, risks for domestic abuse victims who are experiencing ongoing abuse or who have managed to extract themselves from it can continue online as well as offline.
This type of online harassment is carried out by a person already familiar with the victim and Women's Aid teamed up with Facebook to create a guide to help those suffering domestic abuse to stay safe online.
Future of online harassment laws
Targeting online harassment is a key focus of the Online Safety Bill that is going through parliament at the time of writing.
The Government say the Bill will:
- Force companies to proactively remove priority illegal content including hate crime, revenge and extreme pornography, harassment and cyberstalking offences
- Force tech companies to tackle racist abuse on their platforms
- Ensure women have more powers to decide who can communicate with them and what kind of content they see on major platforms to guard against anonymous abuse
- Ensure women are better equipped to report abuse and receive appropriate responses from the platform in question
These are laudable ambitions that have been a long time in the making, but how the legislation will be implemented depends on the framework that will be defined by Ofcom after the Bill becomes law.
So, we could be waiting for some yet to understand the scope of these rules and how they will be implemented to target and prevent online harassment.
Summary: More work to do
The stark reality is that anyone can be a victim of online harassment and many of the steps to tackle it are down to individual choices and actions - for now.
If we're the victim of online harassment, we can:
- Tighten our online privacy settings in a bid to lock the harasser out of our lives
- Report them to the social media platform or website where the harassment is taking place
- Document persistent harassment
- Contact the police to make a formal complaint
At the end of all this, we might still find no action is taken and this can be an incredibly frustrating and upsetting experience.
Hopefully, the long-awaited implementation of the Online Safety Bill will force platforms to engage more effectively with victims of online harassment, but for now vigilance and security are the best tools against online harm.