5 Steps You Can Take To Protect Yourself From Online Harassment

Young girl on her phone at night.

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Key Takeaways

  • Reports of online abuse toward women rose during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In order to protect yourself, report the abuse and user to social media platforms, and if necessary, law enforcement. 
  • There are steps you can take to help prevent online bullying, like reporting users and calling out misleading information.

In April, with the rapid spread of COVID-19, countries across the world went into lockdown. During the first days of shutdown orders, people turned their attention online. Pre-pandemic internet usage was already high, but with nowhere to go, the internet became users' strongest tie to the outside world.

According to a new report by Fix The Glitch, a U.K. charity working to end online abuse, 46% of women surveyed reported experiencing online abuse since the beginning of COVID-19. For some women, the online abuse became worse, with 29% reporting an uptick in abusive behavior. This new reality, where internet users spend more time than ever online, can cause a rise in reactive behavior. 

Ijeoma Opara, PhD, assistant professor of social work at SUNY Stony Brook University's School of Social Welfare in New York, tells Verywell that social media "sends us a lot of messages and images, that may be emotionally triggering," which may partially explain this uptick in online harassment.

However, this isn't a new phenomenon. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found 21% of women ages 18 to 29 report being sexually harassed online, a number more than double the count of men in the same age group (9%). About half of these women report someone sent them explicit images they did not ask for. For many women, online harassment leaves a strong impression: 35% of women who have experienced any type of online harassment describe their most recent incident as either extremely or very upsetting.

Online harassment and bullying are often emotionally taxing experiences. But if you are being targeted, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. 

What This Means For You

If you are being harassed online, there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself, including reporting the user on social media or to the authorities. In order to prevent the cycle of cyberbullying, it's important not to engage or encourage any harassment online yourself.

5 Steps You Can Take If You're Being Harassed Online

Much of modern life is connected to our phones or computers, so a cyberbully attack can make you feel like you've lost a safe space. Thankfully, if you are being targeted, there are steps you can take to keep yourself safe.

Check Your Privacy Settings

To discourage future bullying, make sure your social media accounts have strict privacy settings. On accounts like Facebook or Twitter, set your accounts to “friends only” or “private.”

Make sure to keep your personal details private. Don’t post your home address, phone number, school or job name, or any other personal information about yourself.

Block and Un-Friend

Block harassing accounts, email addresses, and phone numbers. "You can block a social channel just like you can block an email address or phone number," relationship consultant Janice Presser, PhD, tells Verywell. "It's a little like building up your muscles. Every time you exercise your choice, you make yourself stronger."

Take a Break

Take a break from your phone or computer. Turn off your phone and put it out of your sight. If that’s not possible due to work or school commitments, turn off notifications or uninstall social media for a few weeks.

"Choose a day where you do not go on social media at all, or schedule social media time where you scroll for 30 minutes, twice a day and that’s it," Opara says. "Another suggestion is to have a targeted plan of viewing only four to five timelines of followers you trust and to avoid everything else. Women have to protect our energy, and limiting what we take in is a major step to better mental health."

Report Threats

Report threats of bodily harm to the police. If someone threatens your safety, reveals your personal information, calls or contacts your place of employment, or shares sexual pictures or video of you, report it to the police immediately.

"If you’re in an abusive situation, you need to do exactly what you learned in school. Remember stranger danger? You yell and tell," Presser says. "If anything threatens to intrude on your real life, seek protection from your local authorities."

Be sure to save harassing emails, texts, or messages. Take screenshots of threats of violence and other forms of harassment. This will be important evidence if you decide to file a police report. Tell someone that you trust. People want to support you during this time.

Realize This Isn’t About You

In this latest study, strangers were the source of 84% of the respondent’s abuse. It may be difficult to understand why someone would say hurtful statements online to someone they don’t know, but people who bully are often deeply insecure about themselves. Remember, you are worthy of respect and your feelings are important. No matter what anyone might say or imply, you didn’t do anything to deserve such treatment online. This isn’t your fault.

How to Prevent Cyberbullying

There are certain actions you can take to help prevent the cycle of harassment and bullying online. These actions include:

  • Don’t contribute to online bullying, even if your social group is encouraging you to
  • Don’t encourage bullies by “liking” or sharing their comments or posts
  • Don’t spread lies online. Call out misleading information when you see it
  • Defend others when being harassed online
  • Block and report harassers, and encourage victims to do the same

What Each Social Media Platform Says About Bullying

From Facebook: "Bullying and harassment happen in many places and come in many different forms, from making threats to releasing personally identifiable information to sending threatening messages, and making unwanted malicious contact. We do not tolerate this kind of behavior because it prevents people from feeling safe and respected on Facebook. When something gets reported to Facebook, we review it and remove anything that goes against Facebook Community Standards. Facebook doesn't include any information about the person who filed the report when we reach out to the person who posted the abusive material."

From Twitter: "We’ve all seen something on the Internet we disagree with or have received unwanted communication. Such behavior does not necessarily constitute online abuse. If you see or receive a reply you don’t like, unfollow and end any communication with that account. If you continue receiving unwanted, targeted, and continuous replies on Twitter, and feel it constitutes online abuse, consider reporting the behavior to Twitter."

From Instagram: "If an account is established with the intent of bullying or harassing another person or if a photo or comment is intended to bully or harass someone, please report it."

From Snapchat: "We created these Community Guidelines to support our mission by encouraging the broadest range of self-expression while making sure Snapchatters can use our services safely every day. Please remember that you can always file a report with our safety team using our in-app reporting feature or by completing this form. We review these reports to determine whether there is a violation of these Guidelines and any action needs to be taken."

From TikTok: "Online bullying can take many forms, from a trolling video to an unwanted comment. As a global community that thrives on creativity and expression, it’s important to us that users feel safe and comfortable within the TikTok community. If you ever feel someone is harassing you or otherwise being inappropriate, please report them so our moderation team can review and take appropriate action if it violates TikTok's Community Guidelines."

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schumacher S, Kent N. Pew Research Center. 8 Charts on Internet Use Around the World as Countries Grapple with COVID-19. April 2, 2020.

  2. Fix The Glitch. The Ripple Effect: COVID-19 and the Epidemic of Online Abuse. September 2020.

  3. Duggan M. Pew Research Center. Online Harassment 2017. July 11, 2017.

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.