Online Harassment Is a Women’s Health Issue

Photo of terrified woman looking away from laptop computer

Make it stop. Seriously.

IN A FEW SHORT YEARS, online harassment has gone from relative obscurity — in privileged circles — to a newsworthy phenomenon. A flurry of recent events has brought its prevalence and severity to the forefront of the technology law conversation. Which is exactly where it should be, of course, because online harassment is a women’s health issue.

Wait, women’s health? What does that have to do with technology law? These days, it’s better to ask which cases do not fall under that umbrella. We are constantly connected to an Internet of Things that has revolutionized communication, work, entertainment, and everyday living. Almost everything we do is related to a technological advancement.

An Australian study on online harassment found that one-half of adult women overall, and 76 percent of women younger than 30, had been victims of online abuse or harassment. Large majorities believed that online harassment was a serious problem and getting worse. One-fifth “felt violated or abused by their experience,” and 9 percent sought professional help as a result.

We cannot ignore that last statistic. Mental health care in the U.S. is difficult to find and costly to obtain. Individuals with mental illness face increased risks of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and suicide. In January 2016, the Obama administration proposed a $500M program to increase awareness of, and access to, mental health care, but that may take years to develop and implement.

In the meantime, online harassment kills. Every year, headlines relay the tragic stories of teenagers and young adults who have committed suicide as the result of cyber-bullying. In April 2015, game developer Rachel Bryk took her own life after harassers urged her to do so in transphobic and ableist online comments.

Cyberbullies are also at risk. reports that the “[Co]nsequences of cyberbullying include putting both victims and bullies at greater risk for depression, anxiety and stress-related disorders. … [T]hose involved in these bullying acts are at a greater risk of suffering from suicidal thoughts, attempts and completed suicides.” This should not detract attention from victims of online harassment, but it should affect how we treat convicted online harassers, because rehabilitation is an integral step toward preventing recidivism.

Only 1 in 10 victims report their harassers to police, making online harassment more than three times less likely to be reported than rape. Those who do report face an uphill battle from the outset, as police are not often trained to handle online harassment. Many women are told that they have received baseless threats from pranksters, which they should ignore. Revenge porn victims may have no recourse if their state does not have laws that readily apply to the practice. And when harassers use anonymous platforms — such as Reddit and Twitter — local law enforcement may be at a loss to investigate if they have never handled, or even heard of, an online harassment case.

To make matters worse, some harassers use law enforcement to threaten their victims. Swatting is a recent and potentially-deadly form of online harassment, in which local police are told that a hostage situation or other ongoing incident is in progress at the victim’s residence. The police respond as if the report is real, often with para-military weapons, outfitting, and tactics — as is the harasser’s intention.

Because it wastes police resources, swatting is generally taken more seriously than other forms of online harassment. But the practice has an even more insidious side, one that aims to repeat recent tragedies. That SWAT teams kill innocent people in their homes is common knowledge. For the legal system to pretend that swatters don’t intend for their victims to suffer bodily harm is naive, at best, and cruelly negligent, at worst.

The simplest explanation for this is that the law has not caught up to technological advances. In many states, police, judges, and lawyers do not have the tools to arrest, prosecute, and convict online harassers. One legislator wants to change this.

At SXSW 2016, Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) announced her Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act (CETAA), which would establish a $20M federal grant to help local law enforcement prosecute online harassers and other cybercriminals. One-fifth of CETAA’s funding would be used to create and maintain “a national resource center, which … would ideally house a library of shared resources: investigative techniques, training modules, and data about how cybercrime affects specific populations such as women, people of color, and the LGBT community.”

Like any other form of bullying, online harassment has more pronounced negative effects on people who already face an increased risk of suicide. The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention identifies American Indians and Alaskan Natives, LGBTQIA individuals, and those who have previously attempted suicide, among others, as at-risk groups. Worldwide, girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are more likely to die of suicide than any other cause. If we are to successfully solve the problem of online harassment, we need intersectional bills like Representative Clark’s.