January is Stalking Awareness Month, so we’re taking an in-depth look at cyberstalking and how it affects life on campus. Cyberstalking has grown from a noteworthy trend in 1999 to a cause for serious attention and caution in 2012. Digital communication, social networking websites and mobile Internet has changed the scope of the cyber world, and all are prominent on college campuses. Though many students are often connected, there are many ways to protect yourself.
The United States Department of Justice defines cyberstalking as “The use of Internet, e-mail or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person.” For today’s college student, the line between an offline life and an online one is blurred, or never existed at all. This high use-rate of digital communication puts college students in a very high-risk population for cyber-stalking in a way unimaginable when cyberstalking first landed on the DOJ’s radar in 1999.
Indeed, the numbers appear to support this anecdote. According to the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) 2010’s statistics (its most current data-set), 41% of cyberstalking victims are between the ages of 18-30. Alarmingly, 73% of reported cases list a female victim. 15.4% of respondents in CampusComputing.net’s 2010 National Survey of Information Technology in U.S. Higher Education reported that at least one incident of cyberstalking or cyberbullying. The figure was much higher for four-year public colleges, at 20.8%.
There are a variety of national resources available to victims of cyberstalking:
In addition, many Dean of Students offices on campus provide resources for victims of cyberstalking.
There are seven steps that you can take to help protect yourself from the risk of cyberstalking everyday:
1) Understand social network privacy settings
Social networks and other online content and service providers all have privacy policies and most have customizable privacy settings. The challenge for most consumers is how often and quickly these privacy policies and settings can change. Facebook changes its default privacy settings often and even Google has gotten into the act, dramatically changing their privacy policies and practices. If you use these social networks and tools, and you likely do, it’s an absolutely must to take the time to understand these policies and adopt privacy settings that help give you protection from potential risk or harm online. Reputation.com offers a strong primer on how to make your Facebook account more private. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of Reputation.com)
2) Gut-check your check-ins
Location-based social networking is a fantastic way to curate your social life, interests, and your experiences. Before checking-in, take a moment to consider whether or not it’s vital to be announcing to your social network where you are at that given moment. At the very least, make sure your privacy settings will offer some form of protection.
3) Friending should be for friends
While we’d all love to believe that we have 2,000 friends, it’s humanly impossible. Dunbar’s number offers a limit to the number of people a human being can have a proper social relationship with, and that number is 150. You probably don’t need those 2,000 Facebook friends, because you’re likely physical unable to really know more than 150 of them. Keeping a tight rein on the number of people with access to your personal information will ensure your information is distributed to people who you really know and away from friends-of-friends-of-friends who you actually don’t know all too well.
5) Change Your Passwords
We all love having easy-to-remember passwords, and our instinct is to use them often because it’s more simple. If you’re looking to help lower your risk of Internet crime, changing your passwords often and varying them is a great way to make your personal data and social networks much more difficult to consistently access for would-be criminals.
6) Keep Your Anti-Virus Software up to date
According to FightCyberstalking, Trojans, worms, and email viruses are common ways for would-be cyberstalkers to access your information. Make sure that your anti-virus software is up-to-date and you’re doing everything you can to lessen the probability that your personal computer will be attached with a Trojan virus, worm, or email virus.
7) Tag With Caution
Use photo tags cautiously and make sure that photos with your information tagged to them are made available to a small circle of well-known family or friends.
Cyberstalking is a real and serious crime on campus and beyond, but with increased publicity through events like National Stalking Awareness month and through more understanding of digital privacy and social network usage, we can all help build awareness and prevent these crimes.