These days it’s virtually impossible to go a day without going online, as the cyber world is now linked to all aspects of our lives – socialising, work, banking, shopping, and as a hub of information that makes life generally easier.

However, there is a dark side to the internet, a side that more and more people are experiencing: online harassment and abuse.

A quick search online and you will be faced with the vast amount of media reports, personal blogs and support websites for individuals who have experienced cyber bullying, online harassment and abuse. Research has shown time and time again that children and young adults are at high risk of experiencing cyber bullying from peers and strangers which can have devastating consequences.

Adults are also susceptible to online harassment, with individuals often trolled and bullied due to their cultural background, sexual orientation, socio-economic status as well as gender. Online gendered harassment in the last few years has caught the attention of the media and the general public, in part thanks to the #MeToo movement.

Types of Online Sexual Harassment

Online gendered harassment and abuse can be considered an extension to offline gendered violence. According to recent research by Amnesty International, 23% of women globally have experienced online abuse and harassment at least once, with 41% reporting online experiences that had caused concern for physical safety. Online gendered harassment and abuse can come in a range of forms, such as:

Threats of violence

According to Amnesty International, online violence towards women can include direct and indirect threats of physical and sexual violence. These threats have been reported to spill over into the offline world, with individuals often reporting perpetrators tracking them down, stalking or seeking a third-party member to inflict physical harm.

Online harassment and Discrimination

Online harassment can involve one or more individuals working collaboratively to target a victim in order to humiliate, belittle or undermine an individual, to cause stress and harm. This can be done through the use of abusive comments online which can be sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist and hateful, through platforms such as social media. This may occur either for a short amount of time or over a longer period, causing an ongoing problem for the individual.

Doxxing         

Doxxing occurs when one individual reveals personal or identifying information and details about another individual without their consent. This information can include a person’s living address, real name, family names, private phone numbers and email addresses, as well as work information. This is a violation of a person’s privacy with the sole purpose to cause distress and harm.

Image Based Abuse (sharing sexual and private images without consent / revenge porn)

Incidences of image-based abuse are on the rise and occur when an individual shares private images (typically of a sexual nature) or messages without the consent of the other individual.

This behaviour is commonly used to blackmail or manipulate an individual, for example, to make them stay in a relationship, and causes a distressing and negative response from the victim. Unfortunately, image-based abuse isn’t only impacting or constrained to adults, as more and more young adults are reporting experiences of non-consensual distribution of private images, often of a sexual nature.

The Impacts of Online Sexual Harassment and Abuse

Online gendered harassment and abuse has lasting impacts on an individual’s physical and mental health, which may vary depending on the nature of the harassment and abuse, and the perpetrator.

Often the consequences of such behaviours see individuals experience low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of despair, depression and anxiety, as well as panic attacks and issues with trust. Amnesty International has highlighted that women who experience such acts have a heightened sense of fear and often feel threatened and anxious over their physical safety, with some women experiencing post traumatic stress as a result.

Who is Behind Online Sexual Harassment?

Commonly, the perpetrators are known to the individual, and can be either a current partner, ex-partner or a rejected potential partner, as well as known associates through school, work or other social activities.

In other cases, online harassment and abuse can come from complete strangers who engage in the online behaviour independently or in a group.

The reasons why individuals may engage in such behaviours are considered to be about having control or power over another individual, and it is becoming an increasingly common scenario in domestic violence situations, where one partner threatens to share private images in order to get the other to stay.

Other common examples include rejected partners sharing private images and/or messages as well as blackmailing, harassing and stalking the victim online in order to belittle and inflict psychological harm. There are also reported accounts of groups of men who target specific individuals with gendered hate speech, which may go beyond online behaviours and spread into offline environments.

What to Do if You’re Experiencing Online Sexual Harassment

There are several things you can do if you – or someone you know – is currently experiencing or has experienced online harassment and abuse.

According to the eSafety Commissioner you should attempt to remove the individual’s power by reporting the person to the eSafety website, or reporting the acts to social media administrators.

There are also tools you can use to block or mute the harassing individual, to minimise your exposure.

Importantly, be sure to surround yourself with support from family and friends when you are experiencing or have experienced online harassment and abuse. Quite commonly individuals who share such experiences often feel victim blamed, shamed or disbelieved, therefore reaching out to individuals who are likely to empathically listen and not judge you is important.

If you feel that you need more support then what family and friends can offer you, there are a range of support services such as counselling and crisis support services available. Trained therapists can be a great resource for individuals who need additional support, as they can use a range of therapeutic methods to help you through overcoming online harassment and abuse and its associated impacts. Due to the specific nature of online harassment and abuse it is important to seek out a therapist who has a great understanding on the topic, this information is often readily available from the therapist’s website or business profile.