Photo Credit: blck-xcvl
The distinction between online searching and ‘cyberstalking’ is a little-known divide: we all speak of ‘stalking’ our ex, browsing their social platforms more than we should, but where do we draw the line between healthy and toxic?
Julie Spira, online dating expert and bestselling author (The Perils of Cyber-Dating) helps us understand the concepts of ‘cyberstalking’, something she began by defining as ‘any activity directed at someone to frighten or intimidate them online’.
A person can be cyberstalked via email, text messages, harassing and harmful social media comments, and even threaten them in these messages, even if they have no intention of following through on the threats.
We are all guilty of background researching people we don’t know – it’s hard not to in an age where everything we need to know is at our fingertips. But this isn’t ‘cyberstalking’: the difference is in intent. From your experience, what have you found to be the most common intention behind cyberstalking? When explaining the concept, Julie emphasized the importance of motive, the common reasons why somebody engages in ‘cyberstalking’:
Many of the victims of cyberstalking are harassed due to being rejected on a date or by someone obsessed with the person, even if they’ve never met. Perhaps they look similar to another person they knew, or one harbored more romantic feelings than the other.
Although today our privacy can seem intangible, the effects of harassment leave much deeper and lasting impacts than it takes for the ‘stalker’ to infiltrate into our personal sphere. The thin seal of protection between us and a ‘cyberstalker’ (and the unsettling ease with which we often feel contactable and traceable) grants the perpetrator a harrowing omnipotence, the effects of which spark what Julie referenced as ‘an ongoing sense of fear’. What do you see to be the most damaging effects of this behavior, are there any major emotional risks?
It’s a significant cause of stress because the person being digitally stalked never knows when the following message will appear. A cyberstalker might only direct communications at you privately, or they can go public with it to damage your reputation.
It is the anonymity of this process, the uncomfortable juxtaposition in the perpetrator’s levels of power despite their lack of presence that induces such fear and stress. Ironically, the invention which has given us so much power, individuality and independence (social media) is the very thing that threatens this. The lack of identity and multidimensionality which so many of us flourish from holds the power to diminish our security and safety.
Often the person being cyberstalked, will not know the true identity of the person harassing them because they’ll contact them as an alias or use multiple email addresses and phone numbers. The person will claim to love them at first, then switch to hating them, and often make up a list of lies about them to induce fear.
But it would be naïve to blame social channels for the rise of ‘cyberstalking’. Whilst the title does seamlessly link the two, the core of ‘cyberstalking’ seems to lie within a deeper, more psychological reason. In response to our asking ‘do you think cyberstalking is a product of our times (i.e., resultant from the freedom of information online and the easier access into people’s life) or do you feel it is a reflection of our times (i.e., our social media habits creating an inability to move on from relationships?’ Julie explained the multifaceted, and often personal, motivations behind the behavior of cyberstalkers.
Some cyberstalkers’ intent could be romantic rejection or just the ability to create a different persona with someone hiding behind the keyboard. If the person stalking someone online hasn’t met them, chances are they’re cyberstalking multiple people to see if they can get a reaction from them, and it’s a pattern of behavior they’ve had for a long time.
Again, ‘intent’ is highlighted as an important factor between what people call ‘stalking’ your ex and ‘cyberstalking’. Is there ever a right time/situation to reach out to your ex?
Reaching out to an ex during COVID-19 to make sure they’re OK was very common, and if it’s done out of sincere concern, it’s acceptable to connect. The same holds true for birthdays and holidays. Typically, if someone reaches out to an ex on Valentine’s Day, it’s because they have fond memories of their previous relationship or could be lonely if they’re without a partner.
In order to distinguish between the two, it is important you have an honest conversation with yourself. As Julie explains, it is important that you understand your motivation for contacting your ex, your emotional reasoning behind getting in touch: How do you understand your intentions, and distinguish between the good and the bad? How can you tell whether your ‘cyberstalking’ behavior is positive (healthy and naturally inquisitive) or negative (intrusive and obsessive)?
If someone reaches out to an ex with the intent of rekindling the spark, and the feelings aren’t reciprocated, it’s possible the person being rejected could continue to contact you. In this case, they might tell you that you blew it and will spend the rest of your life alone, to cause you emotional harm. More often, it’s just to connect, and the person harassing you didn’t have a serious relationship with you, only a fantasy that you were a perfect match.
But, this is easier said than done! At the best of times, our feelings towards our ex-partner are messy and complicated so how can we adopt such a concise attitude? How do we act normal? How should we interpret our ex reaching out to us, is it always rooted in selfish intentions or can it be a genuine olive branch? If so, how can we tell the difference?
Couples often get back together after a long period apart. Perhaps the timing was off, or maybe they realized you were the one who got away. If the feelings are mutual, you might want to revisit communicating and meeting with them. If an ex is contacting you and it makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, you should firmly let them know you appreciate their call. Still, if you don’t think reconciliation is a good idea, gracefully wish them the best.
Although the term ‘cyberstalking’ may immediately connote images of your ex’s Instagram page, do not get confused between healthy and the toxic behaviour. If you think you’re engaging in harmful – ‘cyberstalking’ – behaviour, make a conscious effort to reframe your perspective and actions. Is there ever a good time to ‘cyberstalk’ your ex? And if so, are there ever any benefits to it, for example does it aid closure or acceptance?
There is never a good time to cyberstalk anyone, especially your ex. If you’re looking for closure, don’t count on your ex to help you with your quest. I recommend writing a closure letter and sending it to yourself.
Breakups are inevitable, and closure conversations never go well. When your relationship is over, your ex won’t serve as your leaning board to help you move on from your relationship. I suggest enlisting
the help of a friend or a therapist to help you while you’re hurting emotionally after the end of a relationship.
The key takeaway here is to remember the dividing line. Remember that your actions – your behavior, your social media presence, your dress sense, your social disposition, your past decisions – to not place blame for being ‘cyberstalked’. As with most victimisations, the fault does not lie within the victim, it lies within the perpetrator. Life is scary; ‘cyberstalking’ is one of the terrifying incidents we all hope never to experience.
What can we do if we feel we are being cyberstalked and it is negatively affecting our life?
If you’re feeling cyberstalked and know the person, kindly ask them to stop. If they continue to harass you, ignore them, block them on social media, and from receiving emails and phone calls. Hopefully, being out of sight will result in being out of mind.
What can we do if we feel like our cyberstalking habits have got beyond our control and are negatively affecting our life?
If you’re being cyberstalked, let your friends and neighbors know. If you’re the one who is initiating the cyberstalking behavior, I suggest going to a professional therapist to help you eliminate this destructive behavior from your life.
The most important thing? Keeping safe and alert.
Words By Hannah Emery