Social Media Is Fostering A Big Rise In Real-World Stalking

We’re sharing too much of our personal data online, even when we think we’re playing it safe. Case in point: this week, Japanese police charged a man with assault after he used his victim’s Instagram selfies–and in particular the reflection in her eyes–to pinpoint her local train station. This is an incredible and alarming story, yet possibly its most incredible feature is that it’s happened before, and that we the general public continue posting intimate photos and information on social media.

The news from Japan may sound like something lifted from Lifetime’s series about Internet-Age stalking and obsession, You, but it has become an all-too familiar occurrence in today’s era of digital openness. For example, Californian police arrested a 21-year-old man last September after he broke into the house and bedroom of a 13-year-old girl, whose address he’d discovered by studying her posts on Instagram and other social media sites.

“The suspect actually targeted a local dance studio in the Inland Empire, and then he began following Instagram photos and social media photos of some of the victims,” said officer Jay Sayegh, speaking to local media outlet WBTV.

Sayegh also warned parents to teach their children basic online skills. “Make sure that your children are being smart, they’re being safe on the internet, not having their accounts open to the public where anyone can view them,” he added.

However, it would seem that too few people are heeding such advice, since numerous other instances have made headlines in recent months and years. In April 2018, police in Florida went public with the case of a Pennsylvania man who, for several years, had trawled social media for young girls to stalk online. Finding victims across a number of states, he came across one Florida girl when she was only 12, and then after a gap of seven years he sent a ‘love’ letter to her home address.

Fortunately, his approaches didn’t go any further, but other cases underline just how dangerous it can be to give away too much information online and on social media. For example, a stalker in the UK murdered his ex-girlfriend in June 2017, after having asked another girl to monitor his former partner’s social media accounts, so that he could learn her movements and follow her around Chatham, Kent, where they lived. 

Across the Atlantic, one Missouri-based detective told Insider Higher Ed. in 2017 that a serial stalker had been able to arrive at bars before his victims by virtue of checking their social media posts beforehand, while the officer also suggested that stalking has increased and become easier since the advent of social media. And returning to the UK, one man even used Facebook to pose as an old friend of his ex-wife so that he could dupe her into giving him sensitive and personal information about her.

Needless to say, many unreported cases like these are likely to have occurred. In the UK, for instance, reported cases of stalking trebled in the four years from 2014 to 2018, rising from 2,882 cases to 10,214. It’s very likely that the existence and pervasiveness of social media has played a significant role in this increase, making it very tempting to conclude that we should all delete our social media accounts in order to guarantee complete safety from digital stalking.

That said, while this author would certainly welcome liberation from the pressures and obligations of social media, those who believe that they genuinely need to be online should at the very least think twice before they post on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Because if we don’t routinely stop to think before publicizing our own movements, we may find that we end up letting one too many people into our lives.