The Covert Ways Young People Stalk Their Victims Online
When so many of your social interactions are conducted online, it can be particularly complicated to evade a stalker.
Art by Michelle Thompson
Every year, women in the UK are killed by stalkers and domestic abusers—despite previously reporting them to the police. Unfollow Me is a campaign highlighting the under-reported issue of stalking and domestic abuse in support of anti-stalking charity Paladin's calls to introduce a Stalkers Register in the UK. Follow all of our coverage here.
After Dani, a 17-year-old student from England, broke up with her 21-year-old boyfriend Andy, she decided to delete all her social media accounts. (Dani’s and Andy’s names have been changed to protect Dani’s safety.) If she wasn’t posting about where she went on Snapchat or Instagram, surely he wouldn’t be able to show up where she was all the time anymore?
Somehow, Andy still managed to track her down. Dani would be out with friends and suddenly he’d be there, or she’d be visiting a friend’s house and Andy would be lurking outside. What Dani didn’t realize was that Andy had created a Snapchat dummy account (an anonymous account run in addition to a public one), and connected with her friends. Dani only worked out what was happening when a friend mentioned that there was this guy who kept liking and commenting on all her posts, and showed Dani the account. It was Andy’s nickname.
Watch: Unfollow Me—The Story of Alice Ruggles
Dani wasn’t tagged in her friends’ snaps, but she was present in some. That was enough for Andy to track her down—her friends all had their location settings turned on, meaning they were easy to find. Andy had been so controlling during their relationship that Dani felt sure it was him when she started receiving death threats from unknown social media accounts. Because of the stalking, Dani didn’t feel safe going to school and almost got expelled due to her poor attendance.
I heard about Dani’s situation through Louise, a Young People’s ISAC (Independent Stalking Advocacy Caseworker) at British anti-stalking charity Paladin. As she predominantly works with stalking and domestic abuse victims aged between 16-25, Louise has helped a lot of young people like Dani, whose lives have been turned upside down due to stalking. (Paladin does not provide surnames for their caseworkers because they often work with high-risk victims—and because stalkers may target those attempting to help their targets.)
In the UK, stalking is defined as behavior where the effect is “to curtail a victim's freedom, leaving them feeling that they constantly have to be careful.” Young people are at high risk for stalking: a 2018 poll of 12,000 Vice Snapchat users aged 13 to 24 found that 35 percent had personally experienced stalking. Stalking is most common among people aged 18 to 24, according to one 2009 report from the US Department of Justice, which also found that stalkers and victim tend to be close in age.
“Young people are one of the most at-risk groups when it comes to stalking. Some of the most serious cases that we see are with young people, and the risk can escalate quite quickly,” says Louise in a phone interview. “Stalking among young people can look very different compared to older people. At 25, people might post openly on social media, but at 16 they’re more likely to use Snapchat or secret messaging [via apps that automatically delete everything], because they don’t want people, or their parents, to see what they’re doing."
According to the Pew Research Center for Internet & Technology, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram are the three most popular social platforms for teens. But Louise says teens will migrate between platforms at a far faster pace than adults. She tells me that Yubo, Burn Book, Whisper, and Houseparty are used by teenagers to chat. Young people can be fickle consumers: Hot or Not was really popular for a while, but not so much any more. Some apps are particularly surreptitious, like Secret Calculator—which definitely isn’t for doing homework (tap in the keycode and it’s actually a secret photo vault). “It’s really fast-moving,” says Louise.
This presents several challenges from a safeguarding point of view. Firstly, it’s harder for adults to keep track of where teens are spending their time. Also, it can be tricky for the teens themselves to stay safe, as each app will have different safety settings that may not be obvious at first glance. For example, with video group chat app Houseparty, anyone can join a chat unless you lock it down, and if someone has joined they can’t be evicted (Houseparty has a reporting function, but there have been reports of adult men exposing themselves to children.)
It can be hard to understand why a young person won’t just quit an app if they’re being stalked or harassed. But for a teenagers the logic isn’t so simple when all of your friends are on a platform. According to Pew, 79 percent of teens instant message with their friends and 57 percent of teens have made new friends online. Abandoning online spaces can leave them isolated from their peer group. Studies show that young people are more sensitive to social exclusion than adults, and teens are more likely than any other age group to take risks. “That’s a lot of pressure on a young person: they probably won’t leave an app if all their friends are on it. As a result, they can be targeted by predatory stalkers online,” says Louise. “For a young person, so much of their social life is on their phone. It's near impossible for them to quit.”
Young people may not actually realize what they’re doing is stalking, says Dr Sameer Hinduja, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and Professor of Criminology at Florida Atlantic University, via email. It’s not uncommon for people to say they’re doing “a bit of Instagram stalking,” when they’re having a nosy yet harmless browse through their peer group’s online profiles. But this behavior can take a more sinister turn when you consider how easy it is to set up multiple anonymous accounts, which can be used not just to surveil, but to harass.
Features like GPS tagging makes it easy to track people down on social media. Apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, which encourage users to geotag, make it really easy to track someone’s location. “We might even set alerts to be notified whenever they make a new post, which can border on stalking,” Hinduja says.
Young people can also make questionable decisions such as logging into social accounts belonging to friends, crushes, or exes, says Hinduja: “My work with thousands of middle- and high-school students each year shows that the majority know the passwords or lock codes of others' phones or social media accounts.” Hinduja adds that anonymous social accounts can certainly be created just to stalk, although anonymity is never guaranteed. “In my experience from studying cyberbullying, targets usually know who the aggressor is—it's usually someone from school.”
Ami, a 24-year-old charity worker from Norfolk, is one such victim who knew her stalker in real life. (Ami’s surname has been omitted to protect her privacy.) It started when Ami was 17 and she and her best friend drifted apart. “I sent her a few messages apologizing,” says Ami, who’d worried maybe she’d been spending too much time with her boyfriend. “I felt like it was my fault,” she tells me via email (Ami has a hearing impairment which makes it difficult for her to speak on the phone). “I got no response so I told her I would give her some space. Then a week or two later I started receiving all these friend requests on Facebook.”
Sometimes it was from her friend, and other times from names Ami didn’t recognize. “It just seemed really odd, but I had no proof,” says Ami. She eventually received confirmation about the origin of the repeated friend requests when her stalker confessed to a mutual friend. “I burst into tears when I found out. I sent a message to each the fake accounts saying I knew it was her, and blocked every single one.”
Being stalked at a young and impressionable age can have lifelong consequences. One 2013 study from Washington and Lee University found that being stalked when you’re aged between 18-22 leaves women 113 percent more likely to experience psychological distress than women who haven’t been stalked. Ami never heard from her former friend again after confronting her, but the experience affected her for a long time afterwards: “It caused me a lot of anxiety for a year or so after it happened.”
For Dani, the impact of Andy’s stalking has been massive, and it’s still not over. She keeps the curtains closed at home, and is scared to go out. Paladin is helping Dani build a police case against Andy. But for now, she’s still living in fear of what he might do.
If you are being stalked and you are based in the UK, you can call Paladin on 020 3866 4107. If you're between 16-25 and experiencing stalking behaviour, and you're based in the UK, find details of Paladin's Young People's Service here. If you are based in the US, you can call the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime on 855-484-2846.