As usual, the insults came while Samantha Gillette was home alone: “You’re ugly and you should die,” one message read. “I hope your arteries clog and you stroke out and die on the operating table,” jeered another.
Gillette, a 24-year-old resident of Jacksonville, North Carolina, had been receiving the messages for about a month. They flashed across her screen on the anonymous platform CuriousCat and on Twitter, always from the same user or his friends.
Eventually, the messages stopped. “I blocked the guy and most of his friends,” Gillette said. “Since then I haven’t had any issues, really.” To this day, she has no idea what set him off.
Unfortunately, Gillette’s experiences are not unique. Seventy percent of women reported that they consider online harassment a serious issue, according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2014, clinical psychologist Keely Kolmes and her colleagues in California surveyed 359 victims of online harassment for the non-profit organization Without My Consent, which provides resources for people like Gillette.
Here, from Kolmes’ findings, are five steps to take if you are experiencing online harassment.
Evaluate Your Emotions
Kolmes’ research states that 92 percent of participants reported feeling anger, sadness, and fear.
Tess Schwartz experienced this first-hand. “There was an account that stalked and harassed me for months and sometimes they still resurface,” said the Kokomo, Indiana resident. “They made fake accounts to harass me and they would screenshot my tweets and pictures and talk badly about me.”
After a while, Schwartz hesitated to be as active online, to the dismay of her nearly 11,000 followers. A typically vivacious person with a bright red pixie cut, Schwartz generally doesn’t make reclusive behavior a part of her repertoire. “I honestly felt violated and apprehensive to post anything anymore,” the 21-year-old said. “I knew they were watching me.”
Kolmes acknowledges that feelings of violation, guilt and shame are sometimes a part of the package. “We often see people second guessing what they did or said that created this situation,” she said.
She urges victims of online harassment to think about what they’re feeling and come to personal conclusions about how they can categorize those emotions. Then, when they’re comfortable, she hopes they will reach out for help.
Talk It Out
Once you have more of an idea of how the harassment is impacting you emotionally, it might be easier to talk about it to others.
In Kolmes’ study, 45.8 percent of respondents suggested seeking support from friends and family, as well as from advocacy groups like Without My Consent.
“Use your support network and identify who is going to help you and whose responses are unhelpful,” said Kolmes.
Marty Roberts, a school counselor in Cincinnati, Ohio, said that not everyone takes advantage of this advice. “Most students try to deal with it internally, not sharing it with their peers or family until it gets to a point where it becomes too much,” he said.
Alyssa Sims, 21, was hesitant to talk to others about her harassment experience. During the months that an anonymous online stalker repeatedly left “creepy” comments on her various social media accounts, Sims remembers feeling isolated and uncomfortable.
“I felt like my parents would have said, ‘Well that’s what you get for not being careful on the internet’,” said the Glen Allen, Virginia resident. “But I definitely wish I would have told more people about it because, looking back at it now, I know there are many people that have similar experiences.”
If the aftermath of harassment is impacting your daily ability to experience happiness, Kolmes also suggests seeking professional help.
Roberts agrees. “Seeing a therapist could be short-term, or, if there’s serious emotional damage done that needs to be followed up on, it could be long term,” he said. “Either way, it can never hurt.”
Take A Break
Of the participants in Kolmes’ study, 161 said they feared going on the internet after they were harassed.
“I think the first instinct of many people is to retreat,” Kolmes said. “To make the thing go away and sometimes to make themselves go away with it.”
For a while, Schwartz fit this mold. “It was solely an online attack, but it did make me feel paranoid in regular life because I was scared it would escalate,” she said. She began closely monitoring the content that she posted on social media and found herself afraid to check her notifications.
Roberts believes that avoiding an issue like online harassment could lead to long-term avoidance issues in other areas of a person’s life. “Avoidance is not a good lifelong option,” he said.
So, what is a good option?
For Gillette, it was taking a step away from social media – not permanently, but when she was busy with other things like spending time with friends or her boyfriend. “Luckily, I have a mindset where I realize that people have no bearing on me outside of the app,” she said. “I always try to remember that once I close the app, it doesn’t matter.”
If disengaging doesn’t help, further steps might be necessary to protect yourself. For Gillette, Schwartz and Sims, the block button is a favorite. But, many times, truly dedicated attackers find a way around being blocked, like creating new accounts or finding their victims on another platform.
“Although I eventually blocked him, I could have sworn he made a new account and started the thing all over again,” Sims said of her harasser.
So, if blocking proves ineffective, what’s your next step?
According to Kolmes, changing the privacy settings on a social media account is the most popular way to deal with harassment. Other solutions include removing friends or contacts, creating a new profile, or reporting the account to site administrators.
Still, Sims said, never be afraid to block them and change your account settings to ‘private’. “Make sure they won’t be able to access your profile,” she said. “It’s definitely important to protect yourself.”
In the event that clicking a few buttons can’t solve your problem, Kolmes suggests a more drastic measure: contact the authorities and then get a lawyer.
Only seven participants in Kolmes’ study reported reaching out to an attorney about their harassment problems. Kolmes said she wishes more people would explore the option.
“It’s good to talk to an attorney because they can tell you what your options are,” she said. “I think gathering information can be very empowering.”
If you are able to seek out legal help, or feel that it’s necessary, Kolmes suggests you keep a detailed record of the harassment. Screenshots help. “Don’t get rid of the stuff that could be evidence,” she said.
If someone is posting intimate or private information about you without your consent, Kolmes stresses that you have legal options. “Part of the reason people are doing this is to shame you,” she said. “Talking to people and thinking about what your legal options are is most important.”
If nothing else, restraining orders are an option. Especially in situations where you feel your physical safety is in question. “You never know what could happen and that’s terrifying,” said Sims. “What if he would somehow find me? It could have been a lot worse.”
Don’t Be A Victim of Online Harassment
Gillette has come a long way since her online attacker made himself scarce last year. “At this point in my life, it wouldn’t affect me too much other than just being a mild annoyance,” she said. “It took me a long time to get that mentality, honestly.” Since then, Gillette has done a lot of self-reflection and developed a tougher skin. So have Schwartz and Sims, who have both resumed normal, albeit cautious, social media practices since their experiences with online harassment.
Kolmes cautions that online harassment is something that can happen to anyone, unexpectedly and with little to no provocation. “Oftentimes, it seems to be some kind of retaliatory situation,” she said. “These are people who are trying to exert, for whatever need, for whatever reason, some sort of power over another person.”
Empowerment, Kolmes said, can help remedy that. When faced with the unfortunate aftermath of an online attack, the best thing to do is speak up and make yourself heard, whether by a friend, a therapist, or your attorney. Armed with these five pieces of advice, and a support network, you can begin to move on from your experiences. And, seriously, hit that block button.