An Inquiry into the Prevalence of Unwanted Contact and Harassment


Cynthia Pandolfo and William Fleischman (USA)


In this paper, we discuss the results of a survey conducted among university undergraduates concerning unwanted contact and harassment through electronic mail and the Internet. This survey is the first in a projected series of studies designed to help provide a taxonomy for incidents of this nature and to identify important issues related to individual and community response.

The current study originated as a result of examination of issues raised in the paper of Professors F. Grodzinsky and H. Tavani, “Is Cyberstalking a Special Type of Computer Crime?”, presented at ETHICOMP 2001 in Gdansk, Poland. In their paper, Grodzinsky and Tavani consider whether cyberstalking constitutes a ‘genuine’ computer crime. They present a variety of arguments that cut both ways on this question. They cite the complicating factors of the possibility of anonymous or pseudonymous action and the difficulties posed by the matter of establishing jurisdiction in cases of electronic harassment. Nonetheless, they argue that the dangers associated with the exploitation of children and victimization of women suggest the need for a uniform statute on cyberstalking and effective mechanisms in the law to protect targets of harassment in cyberspace.

Investigation of the articles cited in Grodzinsky and Tavani, as well as other materials available on the World Wide Web and in print, reveals that there is considerable information published, though mainly of an anecdotal nature, relating to unwanted electronic contact, harassment, and cyberstalking in the professional setting and the world at large. Grodzinsky and Tavani discuss several of the most notorious instances of cyberstalking, cases in which electronic menace was ultimately converted into violent and deadly physical assault. Although we did not expect to uncover evidence of such an extreme nature, we were interested to study the prevalence and types of incidents of this nature in a university community, with a view to advancing understanding of the taxonomy of these incidents, the extent of the problem they pose, their effect on individual behavior, and the potential for constructive community measures of education, support, and protection. Recognizing the futility of regarding any single institution as an entity existing in electronic isolation, we nonetheless felt that there was value in analyzing the experiences of a sample of university undergraduates to look for important similarities with earlier reported incidents, both in the behaviors of those who initiated electronic harassment and in the responses of individuals who became the targets of such attention.

The survey on which we report was conducted at Villanova University, a selective mid-size private coeducational institution governed by the Augustinian Order of the Roman Catholic Church. We describe the overall demographics and special features of the undergraduate student population from which the study sample was drawn. We discuss aspects of the methodology of the study, including measures to protect the anonymity of respondents.

The survey questionnaire comprised a limited number of demographic items and separate sections relating to unwanted contact and harassment through electronic mail, instant messaging, and chat rooms. Questions requiring both specific information and unstructured open response were included.

Not surprisingly, the response rates and the nature of responses were significantly different for men and women. Although the term cyberstalking was not mentioned in either the survey questionnaire or the cover letter that accompanied it, several respondents used this word in characterizing an episode of on-line harassment the experienced. Other respondents indicated that feelings of annoyance, vulnerability, and anxiety induced them to curtail their use of the Internet.

Although the present study represents the initial stage in a wider inquiry, there are several matters of interest to report. We discuss quantitative and qualitative aspects of the survey responses received. The findings are helpful in suggesting a preliminary version of a taxnomy of incidents of harassment that may prove useful in guiding individual and community response. The finding that some individuals have curtailed their use of the Internet and other electronic resources is particularly significant in the context of an academic environment. We explore the advantages and limitations of the various legal, administrative, and informal measures available to university officials and members of its on-line community in reacting to or anticipating instances of harassment involving electronic mail and the Internet. Of particular interest, in this regard, are university community measures for education in the ethical use of electronic resources and for the protection and support of targets of on-line abuse. Finally, we discuss plans for the next phases of this research project. These plans include a comparative study of the experiences of individuals working in a professional capacity within the university.