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Online harassment is repeat unsolicited and abusive contact, with the goal of intimidating or frightening the target. It may also include an offline component; sometimes it starts offline and moves online, or the harassment escalates and the target begins to experience attacks offline as well. Many nations have laws covering online harassment and related activities like cyberstalking. There are measures people can take to address the problem, including complaining to Internet service providers and requesting police assistance.
Several characteristics tend to be seen with online harassment. The first is the abusive nature of the unwanted contact. Someone who sends obnoxious forwards all the time is not necessarily harassing the recipient, and likewise, spam, while annoying, is not a form of harassment. When the unsolicited material starts to include threats, abuse, and bullying, it is a cause for concern. Online harassment can also include stalking components, like following the target across all the sites he uses, contacting the person's friends, and publishing unkind or untruthful material to humiliate or upset him.
This activity can escalate very quickly and it is sometimes difficult for friends and family to identify. The victim may not discuss it and may delete or hide evidence of harassment out of shame or fear. In cases where people are also being stalked, bystanders may not connect the dots and realize that a friend, coworker, or family member is being followed around the Internet by another person. In some cases, it contributes to bullying, and multiple people may join in. Harassers may also start sending text messages, calling, and taking other offline actions against their targets.
People who experience online harassment can take a number of steps. Engaging directly with an abusive person can be dangerous, but people can send an email requesting that the harasser stop contact. It is a good idea to copy this email to the abuse department at the harasser's ISP. In a situation where the behavior occurs in a school or workplace setting, copying the email to school or work officials can be helpful as well. This provides clear documentation about the situation and can lay the groundwork for taking disciplinary action.
It is also a good idea to keep copies of material sent by a harasser. Many people delete the unwanted communications, and this can make it harder to get police assistance. People could ask friends or family to accept forwarded communications and store them, or to take screen shots of abusive messages. If people feel endangered or the harassment starts to interfere with work, school, or life, they can contact the police with the documentation and request assistance. It is also advisable to seek assistance from the service provider the person doing the harassment uses; it may be a violation of the terms of service, and the person's account could be closed or suspended.
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