Guest columnist: Cyber-harassment: The who and why

Melinda Stephan

Even if you’ve never heard the term “cyber-harassment,” you’ve likely heard of instances of it. It’s harassment with a tech twist. Cyber-harassment is any unwanted communication on a mobile device, computer or tablet.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve basically grown up with a computer. When you grow up with something, you tend to look past certain aspects of it. The World Wide Web has given us convenience, but in the process, we sometimes compromise our safety.

If we’re going to exist with social technology, one danger in particular that we have to wrestle with is cyber-bullying. Even though harassment is nothing new, the modern iteration is just as insidious, just as emotionally detrimental and possibly just as underreported.

Awareness about cyberharassment is spreading, and one of the most recent sites created for the purpose of raising awareness is called KnowHarassment. (KnowHarassment is the brainchild of my group in a class called Web Programming.)

Those of us who are producing this site are conducting a survey about cyber-bullying. Survey data from KnowHarassment has found that cyber-harassment is also reported in a very minimal way, if at all.

And just because an advance – cyber or physical – is unwanted, doesn’t mean some people won’t try to get away with doing it. Interestingly enough, the new version of harassment seems to have the same root causes as its old form, according to a Refinery 29 article by Elizabeth Segran about why men send “dick pics.”

First of all, some online harassers are well aware their behavior is unwanted, but it has the potential to produce reciprocation or even just a reaction, which is really what they’re looking for. It doesn’t matter if the reaction is positive because the participation elicited gives them a sense of power.

Another reason an online relationship might turn aggressive is that some people are confused about the nature of their relationship. According to Refinery 29, due to different socialization patterns, men especially enjoy getting nude photos, and think their counterpart will too.

The Refinery 29 article points to one more reason some people engage in behavior your average person might find offensive: no matter how strange, provocative, vulgar or repellent it is, some people dig that stuff. Simple as that.

The general rule of thumb: If you’re already wondering if whether you’re sending something offensive, then you probably are – so don’t.

And remember, there’s no harm in asking someone what they like or want. Everyone is weird and normal in his or her own way, so make a friend rather than offending a stranger.

Note the lack of gender-specific pronouns: this is not an accident. As far as the numbers go, many stats say women are disproportionally affected by sexual harassment, but this site is not about male-bashing, it’s about awareness. So don’t forget, harassment goes both ways.

And please keep an eye out for our KnowHarassment site (it will be up and running soon), and until then please visit Know Harassment’s Facebook page at, and take our survey at We appreciate any site traffic, survey respondents and feedback you can give us. Every tiny piece of information helps us immensely, and means spreading awareness, and that’s our goal.

Contact Melinda Stephan at [email protected].