Students share stories of online harassment

“You’re lucky you’re a pretty girl who has lots of friends because without looks you don’t get any of that.” This was a message I received in my Facebook inbox from a complete stranger, who was upset because I did not respond to one of his Instagram comments. He continued to insult me and finished off by saying, “You’re so full of shit, it isn’t funny.”

This was an individual I’ve never met or interacted with before. Although I knew that his ill-mannered comments were “full of shit,” it still made me quite upset. It is baffling to witness how bold people can become once they have an object with a screen and keyboard in hand, and the messages they send to other people’s inboxes.

What I found especially surprising was the slew of “no, sorry” responses that I received as I walked around Ryerson’s campus asking students whether they’ve ever experienced online harassment. But I think the real underlying problem is that students don’t really understand what online harassment is.

Online harassment is just another term for cyberbullying. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, it can include sending unsolicited and threatening emails, spreading rumours, creating content that defames the victim and so on. It can happen to anyone at any age and can be inflicted not just by strangers, but by people the victim knows. In my situation, I was able to respond to my harasser with a few words, followed by a block-and-delete. It’s not always as simple for others.

Natalie Cito, a third-year English major, said she experienced online harassment at the age of 12 when her “best friends” created a website about her. The website, she said, “bashed” her and included personal information about her life, such as deaths in her family. “It was like a bullying experience and it forced me to leave school,” said Cito.

According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, young adults aged 18-29 are more likely to be targets of online harassment. While it is commonly believed that more women than men experience online harassment, a study conducted by the think tank concluded that 44 per cent of men encounter online name calling, embarrassment and physical threats, compared with 37 per cent of women.

(Illustration by Brooke Taylor)

Miya Strauss, an RTA School of Media student, said she also experienced online harassment after her friend jokingly made her a profile on the dating site OkCupid. “I mean the whole profile was gross, so naturally I got a lot of disgusting requests,” said Strauss.

Strauss said she did eventually begin a text conversation with a guy she interacted with on the dating site. However, the conversation escalated drastically, with the guy insulting Strauss within a matter of minutes.

“He said, ‘Your pictures make it look like you probably slept with a couple of people, and I did not have any revealing photos, so I was kind of confused. The conversation progressed. It got onto the topic that I was a vegetarian and we had also been talking about the fact that I’m Jewish and he made a comment like, ‘Great, a vegetarian and a Jew,’” said Strauss.

After my brief online encounter with the man who sent me that message, I expressed myself on social media about how this issue should not be taken lightly. I was then messaged by a user who told me to “stop being a basic bitch and just block him.” It’s comments like these that stigmatize victims who speak up on what they endure at the keyboards of others. As seen with social media trends likes  #MeToo, it only takes the voice of one to trigger an onslaught of others sharing their experiences.

Ryerson offers safe spaces for all students who feel the need to speak to someone. The Ryerson Students’ Union has the Centre for Women and Trans People along with the Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line. Students are able to speak anonymously to professionals if they are being victimized and don’t know how to handle it on their own.

“I think what we would count as online harassment varies depending on how marginalized a person is,” said Cassandra Myers, the co-ordinator of the Sexual Assault and Survivor Support Line. “In an online dating app culture, because of how pervasive rape culture is, people will be more explicitly offensive and explicitly harassing.”

This rape culture that Myers speaks of brings out the worst in people and makes victims feel obligated to respond or argue back by defending their identity. You do not have to respond to crude messages from strangers, you do not have to accept an invitation to interact with them and most importantly, you do not have to be a victim. No means no, even if it’s online, and people fail to realize that. When they face the harsh reality that their victim may not be interested in any sort of encounter they lash out.

But if you are ever faced with this dilemma, there are steps that can be taken to solve it.

Myers recommends that victims record conversations that may include harassing behaviour and take screenshots that include the perpetrator’s name. Once they have that record, the next step is to block and delete and then stay as far away from that person as possible. Ryerson students can find support by reaching out to the office of Sexual Violence, Support and Education.

“They’ll be able to help you in terms of unpacking that situation, getting extra counselling if you need it,” said Myers.

For students who have to interact with their harassers in an academic space and want them to face appropriate consequences, they can contact the Office of the Ombudsperson who will help find options to distance both people or deal academic consequences to the perpetrator in question.

Back in middle school, Cito took the first step of telling an adult.“I told my mom,” she said. “We talked to the principals and dealt with their parents. It was more of an adult issue.”

Strauss took the step of reaching out to authorities. “In my situation I actually did reach out to the cops at first, and they were like, he needs to actually reach out to your family members for us to do anything.”

And now you can take that extra step to speak up and let others know that belittling, degrading, disrespecting or embarrassing another individual is not OK. Be a voice for those who are having trouble finding theirs.

Cito said, “Just remember that anything you read online isn’t necessarily true about yourself or about others. Make sure you’re being open about what’s happening in that space and if you feel like it’s a negative space, leave it.”

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