How Social Media Created a Platform for Digital Harassment

Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram allow users to connect with individuals all over the world with the click of a button. While these networks allow people to keep in touch with and make new friends, they also give strangers the opportunity to contact other users, regardless of if that contact is wanted or unwanted.

With Facebook walls covered in tagged photos and Instagram bio’s filled with greek letters, college initials, and other community labels, it’s easy for anyone with a smartphone or laptop to learn about a social media use within seconds. Private messaging options allow users to communicate with one another, regardless of if these two individuals are friends, mutual followers or complete strangers. Although there are positive stories of people becoming friends or even starting a relationship through meeting online, there are an equal amount of horror stories.

Dating apps have become a popular tool among American college students, allowing them to make quick connections with individuals they may have never met otherwise. With an undergraduate student body population of about 25,000, it’s almost impossible to meet every student on Virginia Tech’s campus within four years.

Tinder and Bumble are two of the most common dating apps to find on a college students’ phone. Both applications are easy to use and have a simple matching process. Users create a profile where they upload photos of themselves, a brief bio, and also link any additional social media accounts. Once complete, users can begin forming matches. To do this, users can either swipe left to express disinterest or right to express interest in their potential match when this or her photo appears. You are only able to start a conversation with another user if you both swipe right.

Messages usually include pick-up lines, compliments, weekend plans, and other superficial discussions. Although these apps foster a fun and flirty energy for students to connect, some conversations can escalate quickly, and make users question whether a match is being persistent, creepy or are bordering on harassment.

Unwanted comments on someone’s appearance, sexual jokes or advances, verbal threats and a constant invasion of an individual's personal space are all examples of harassment. While harassment is assumed to only take place in person, these examples, along with many others, can all be conducted digitally as well.

“Consent should be a part of your interactions with others when you’re texting or using social media.” Wrote the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSRVC) when explaining digital consent. “Although you aren’t talking face-to-face, you should always consider how your actions might make another person feel and ask questions if you don’t know.”

Harassment is not just making unwanted physical advances or violently hurting another person. Harassment is any unwanted contact which makes an individual directly involved feel uncomfortable, fearful, threatened, or bothered.

The phrase, “no means no” does not apply solely to discussions of sexual activity. Social media users need to realize that consent is a requirement for all aspects of a relationship. This includes texting, sexting, and social media involvement.

No one is obligated to another individual’s time. If a potential match or mutual follower is not responding to your messages, that is a clear sign that they do not want to communicate.

Although it might be upsetting that your tinder crush does not reciprocate your feelings, or that cute girl on instagram left you on read, constantly messaging another individual when he or she has either stated their disinterest or has chosen to not reply is considered digital harassment.

Imagine that someone were to repeatedly approach you on campus after you had made you feelings of discomfort clear. He or she continues to speak with and bagger you with unwanted commentary which soon escalates into aggressive remarks. This would be considered harassment. Online, it’s no different.

While social media and dating apps have done a good job of connecting individuals, both in their communities and worldwide, they have also created a platform for digital harassment. Users are now able to message anyone they chose to on a multitude of social media platforms. And while stating your discomfort with a conversation or ignoring unwanted messages may not work, the block button always does.

Having to block an individual sounds harsh, but when messages from several social media sites seem to be never-ending, it can be a user’s only option.

Online, people tend to communicate in ways they wouldn’t if the conversation took place in person. Being able to hide behind a cell phone screen gives people a sense of anonymity. Because of this, some individuals feel more confident and are able to take a leap, such as asking their crush out on a date through text. Yet at the same time, some people can be more aggressive and hostile online, leading them to make threats or insensitive comments towards another individual.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation online, users have limited options, especially when stating your discomfort is not enough for the individual harassing you. Blocking an individual has become a common, and probably the safest, end result when dealing with internet trolls and cyber-stalkers.

When it comes to communicating online, it’s important for individuals to practice digital consent. While social media has taken networking to another level and works as the glue that keeps many people in the loop with one another, it gives users a direct line of contact with any individual of their choosing. These apps give people the option to reach out to another person online and make unwanted comments digitally; ultimately, creating a platform for digital harassment.

Digital harassment is not talked about frequently due to the lack of physical contact and/or danger the individuals are in. Yet, words said through text or social media can be just as concerning as those said face-to-face.

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