Insights on Canadian Society
Women and men who experienced cyberstalking in Canada

by Amanda Burlock and Tamara Hudon

Release date: June 5, 2018

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Overview of the study

Using data from the 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization), this study examines the prevalence of cyberstalking among women and men aged 15 and over living in the 10 Canadian provinces. This study also examines several factors associated with experiences of cyberstalking—specifically, self-rated mental health and satisfaction with personal safety from crime.

  • In 2014, approximately 2.5 million people in Canada (representing 7% of Internet users aged 15 and over) experienced cyberstalking in the previous five years. Women were more likely to report having been cyberstalked (8%) than men (less than 6%).
  • The prevalence of cyberstalking was higher among younger women and men. For instance, 14% of women aged 15 to 24 were cyberstalked compared with 7% of women aged 45 to 54. Similarly, 9% of men aged 15 to 24 reported being cyberstalked compared with 4% of men aged 45 to 54.
  • Women who were victimized or witnessed violence in their youth were more likely to report that they experienced cyberstalking. For example, 15% of women who witnessed violence involving at least one parent before age 15 were cyberstalked, compared with 7% among those who did not.
  • Women who were cyberstalked had a lower probability than those who were not cyberstalked to report that their mental health was “very good” or “excellent” (67% versus 74%). They were also less likely to be “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with personal safety from crime (80% versus 86%).
  • Men who were cyberstalked also had a lower probability to report that their mental health was “very good” or “excellent” (70% versus 75%). Personal safety indicators, however, did not differ between men who were cyberstalked and those who were not.
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Introduction

Internet use is nearly universal in Canada—with about 90% of the population being online at least a few times a month in 2016.Note 1 Widespread Internet use has significantly altered how we communicate with each other by introducing innovative ways of accessing information and socializing. Technological advances have also increased Internet accessibility, allowing for immediate Internet use through wireless handheld devices such as cell phones or tablets. Many Canadians own multiple devices through which they can access the Internet. In 2016, among Canadians aged 15 and over, 76% owned a smartphone, 71% had a laptop or netbook, 54% owned a tablet or e-reader, and 50% had a desktop computer.Note 2 This ever-present and immediate access to the Internet—and consequently to other people via the Internet—may be viewed as positive in many respects (e.g., connecting or reconnecting with friends or family, online shopping), but it may also lead to online victimization, as perpetrators have new, and potentially anonymous, ways of harassing or threatening others.

Past research has shown that there are multiple risk factors associated with online victimization (i.e., cyberbullying and cyberstalking). For example, people who use the Internet more frequently are more likely to report having been victimized online than those who use the Internet less frequently.Note 3 Previous research has also shown that women are at greater risk of cyberstalking than men.Note 4 That said, little is known about whether the risk factors for cyberstalking or the impact of being cyberstalked differ between women and men.

This article will examine whether the factors associated with cyberstalking differ between women and men.Note 5 Empirical evidence on the emotional impact of cyberstalking (e.g., mental health and well-being) is limited, whereas research on the impact of traditional, offline stalking is more readily available. Recognizing that cyberstalking and offline stalking are closely related phenomena,Note 6 previous research has suggested that women may be more adversely affected by experiencing offline stalking than men.Note 7 As such, the relationship between experiencing cyberstalking, self-rated mental health and satisfaction with personal safety from crime will also be examined for women and men.

This study uses the 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) to examine the prevalence of cyberstalking experiences among women and men aged 15 and over in the 10 Canadian provinces. Only those who indicated using the Internet at least once in the previous five years were included in this study.Note 8

Women are more likely than men to report that they experienced cyberstalking

Cyberstalking is a relatively new area of research with no universally accepted definition or consensus among researchers about what constitutes cyberstalking.Note 9 In this study, cyberstalking is defined using individuals’ responses to two questions that appeared within a larger suite of questions about stalking. As was the case with all stalking questions, the two cyberstalking questions were prefaced with “In the past 5 years, have you been the subject of repeated and unwanted attention that caused you to fear for your safety or the safety of someone known to you? By that I mean…”

(1) has anyone sent you unwanted messages through e-mail, text, Facebook or any other social media?

(2) has anyone posted inappropriate, unwanted or personal information about you or pictures on a social media site?

Unlike other forms of online victimization (e.g., cyberbullyingNote 10), cyberstalking is distinct in that the respondent reported feelings of fear. The sample included all respondents who self-reportedNote 11 being cyberstalked using at least one of the measures described above, both of which acknowledged fear for their safety or the safety of someone known to them.Note 12 Given that fear is central to the experience of cyberstalking, it is important to recognize that gender differences in fear may play a role in the likelihood of self-reporting cyberstalking. Previous research has suggested that men are more likely than women to downplay or not disclose their fear of crime.Note 13

In 2014, approximately 2.5 million women and men in Canada (representing 7% of the population aged 15 and over) reported having experienced cyberstalking in the previous five years. Among them, women were more likely than men to report having been cyberstalked (8% versus 6%, respectively).

Younger women and men were particularly at risk of having been cyberstalked in the previous five years (Chart 1). For instance, 14% of women aged 15 to 24 were cyberstalked compared with 7% of women aged 45 to 54. Similarly, 9% of men aged 15 to 24 reported being cyberstalked compared with less than 5% among men aged 45 to 54. In addition, young women aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 were more likely than same-aged young men to have been cyberstalked. This gender difference was also observed among those aged 45 to 54.

Data table for Chart 1

Data table for Chart 1
Data table for Chart 1
Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years,Data table Note 1 by age, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years. The information is grouped by Age group (appearing as row headers), Women and Men, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group Women Men
percent
15 years and over 7.7 5.7Note *
15 to 24 years (ref.) 13.5 8.6Note *
25 to 34 years 10.6Data table Note  7.7Note *
35 to 44 years 6.5Data table Note  5.4Data table Note 
45 to 54 years 7.1Data table Note  4.5Data table Note Note *
55 to 64 years 4.0Data table Note  3.5Data table Note 
65 years and over 2.2Note E: Use with caution Data table Note  2.7Data table Note 

The prevalence of cyberstalking also varied by region. Among women, the prevalence of cyberstalking was significantly lower in Quebec (5%) than it was in Atlantic CanadaNote 14 (8%), Ontario (8%) and the western provincesNote 15 (9%) (Chart 2). Among men, the prevalence of cyberstalking was similar in Quebec (4%) and Atlantic Canada (5%), but cyberstalking prevalence in Quebec was significantly lower than in Ontario (7%) and the western provinces (6%).Note 16

Data table for Chart 2

Data table for Chart 2
Data table for Chart 2
Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years,Data table Note 1 by region, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years. The information is grouped by Age group (appearing as row headers), Women and Men, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Age group Women Men
percent
Canada 7.7 5.7Note *
Atlantic Canada 8.0Data table Note  4.6Note *
Quebec (ref.) 5.0 4.0
Ontario 8.4Data table Note  6.5Data table Note Note *
Western provinces 8.5Data table Note  6.0Data table Note Note *

Among women aged 15 and over, those who were marriedNote 17 were less likely to be cyberstalked than women in any other relationship situation (Chart 3). Women who were in a common-law relationship were more likely than married women to have been cyberstalked (7% versus 4%); the difference between men in a common-law relationship and married men was not significant (4% versus 3%). Women and men who were single (never-married) and those who were separated or divorced were particularly more likely to report that they had experienced cyberstalking.

Data table for Chart 3

Data table for Chart 3
Data table for Chart 3
Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years,Data table Note 1 by marital status, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years. The information is grouped by Marital status (appearing as row headers), Women and Men, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Marital status Women Men
percent
Married/widowed (ref.) 4.3 3.3Note *
Common law 7.4Data table Note  3.7Note E: Use with cautionNote *
Separated/divorced 11.7Data table Note  12.5Note E: Use with caution Data table Note 
Single (never married) 13.1Data table Note  9.2Data table Note Note *

In terms of gender differences, married women were slightly more likely than married men to have experienced cyberstalking in the previous five years (4% versus 3%). The difference was greatest among those who were single (never-married) (13% versus 9%), whereas separated or divorced women and men were similarly likely to have been cyberstalked in the previous five years (12% and 13%).

Among those were separated or divorced, female victims of cyberstalking were nearly 2.5 times more likely to report having been physically or sexually abused by an ex-spouse in the previous five years than their counterparts who had not experienced cyberstalking (29% versus 12%). A similar finding was observed among separated or divorced men, albeit to a lesser extent (26% versus 14%).

The prevalence of cyberstalking is higher among women who were victimized in their youth

Research has demonstrated a strong link between childhood victimization (i.e., witnessing and/or experiencing abuse during childhood) and an increased risk of victimization in adulthood.Note 18 In line with such research, the prevalence of cyberstalking among women and men aged 15 and over was significantly higher for those who had experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuseNote 19 and for those who, as a child, had witnessed violence involving at least one parent.Note 20

Specifically, among those who had experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15, women were nearly 1.5 times more likely than men to have been cyberstalked (14% versus 9%, respectively) (Chart 4). Women were also more likely than men to have experienced cyberstalking if they had witnessed violence involving at least one parent before the age of 15 (15% versus 11%).

Data table for Chart 4

Data table for Chart 4
Data table for Chart 4
Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years,Data table Note 1 by past experience of assault or witnessing violence involving at least one parent, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who were cyberstalked in the past five years. The information is grouped by Sex (appearing as row headers), Past experience of victimization, Experienced physical and/or sexual assault before age 15, Witnessed violence involving at least one parent before age 15, Yes (ref.) and No, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Sex Past experience of victimization
Experienced physical and/or sexual assault before age 15 Witnessed violence involving at least one parent before age 15
Yes (ref.) No Yes (ref.) No
percent
Women 13.5 5.2Data table Note  14.8 6.7Data table Note 
Men 8.9Note * 3.9Data table Note Note * 11.1Note * 5.0Data table Note Note *

In addition, the gap with respect to cyberstalking between those who were victimized in the past and those who were not was greater for women than it was for men. For instance, among women who had experienced physical and/or sexual assault before the age of 15, 14% had experienced cyberstalking versus 5% who had not (a difference of 8 percentage points). Among men who had experienced this type of abuse, 9% had experienced cyberstalking versus 4% among those who had not (a difference of 5 percentage points).

Past experience with violence or discrimination remained associated with cyberstalking, even after accounting for other factors

This section assesses the impact of each factor associated with having experienced cyberstalking in the past five years among women and men aged 18 and over.Note 21 Separate logistic regressions were estimated for women and men to assess the relationship between cyberstalking and selected characteristics, including demographic, socioeconomic, and ethnocultural characteristics; as well as past experience with violence or discrimination. Regression models were created to examine the significance of each characteristic while taking all other factors into account. The results from these models are presented as predicted probabilities where 1 should be interpreted as a 100% chance of having experienced cyberstalking and 0 as a 0% chance of having experienced cyberstalking.

Among both women and men, the results indicate that, after controlling for other key factors of interest, there is a relationship between having experienced cyberstalking and a number of factors including age, marital status, household income, parental education, and past experience with violence or discrimination.

Demographic characteristics—age, region and marital status—remained significantly associated with cyberstalking after controlling for other factors (Table 1). Similarly, the associations between marital status and cyberstalking described earlier also remained even after controlling for other factors.

Table 1
Predicted probability of having experienced cyberstalking in the past five years among women and men aged 18 and over,Table 1 Note 1 by selected characteristics, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Predicted probability of having experienced cyberstalking in the past five years among women and men aged 18 and over Women and Men, calculated using predicted probability units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Women Men
predicted probability
Age group
18 to 24 (ref.) 0.11 0.07
25 to 34 0.10 0.07
35 to 44 0.07Note * 0.06
45 to 54 0.07Note * 0.04
55 to 64 0.04Note * 0.03Note *
65 and over 0.03Note * 0.04Note *
Region
Atlantic 0.08 0.05
Quebec 0.05Note * 0.04Note *
Ontario (ref.) 0.08 0.06
West 0.08 0.06
Marital Status
MarriedTable 1 Note 2 (ref.) 0.06 0.04
Common-law 0.08Note * 0.03
Separated/divorced 0.11Note * 0.11Note *
Single (never-married) 0.09Note * 0.08Note *
Education
High school diploma or less (ref.) 0.07 0.05
Postsecondary education below the bachelor's level 0.07 0.06
Bachelor's degree or higher 0.08 0.06
Parents' education
Both have a university degree (ref.) 0.10 0.07
At least one has a university degree 0.09 0.06
Neither has a university degree 0.07Note * 0.05Note *
Do not know either parent's education level 0.04Note * 0.05
Household income (before tax)
Less than $40,000 (ref.) 0.11 0.04
$40,000 to $79,999 0.07Note * 0.06
$80,000 or more 0.07Note * 0.05
Not stated 0.08Note * 0.06
Aboriginal identity
Aboriginal (ref.) 0.09 0.06
Non-Aboriginal 0.07 0.05
Respondent's birthplaceTable 1 Note 3
Born in Canada (ref.) 0.08 0.05
Born outside Canada 0.07 0.06
Visible minority status
Visible minority (ref.) 0.06 0.04
Not a visible minority 0.08Note * 0.06Note *
Sexual orientation
Heterosexual (ref.) 0.08 0.05
Homosexual/bisexual 0.07 0.07
Experience of abuse before age 15
Experienced physical abuse or sexual abuse 0.10Note * 0.07Note *
Experienced both physical and sexual abuse 0.15Note * 0.14Note *
None (ref.) 0.06 0.04
Witnessed violence involving at least one parent before age 15
Yes 0.10Note * 0.08Note *
No (ref.) 0.07 0.05
Experienced discrimination in the past five years
Yes 0.13Note * 0.10Note *
No (ref.) 0.06 0.04

Cyberstalking did not vary across educational attainment levels for women and men. Parental education, however, was related to cyberstalking experiences. Women whose parents did not have a university degree had a lower probability of experiencing cyberstalking compared with women whose parents both had a university degree (7% versus 10%). A similar finding was observed among men (5% versus 7%).Note 22

Previous research has demonstrated a relationship between household income and online victimization. Specifically, people in lower income households are more likely to report having been victimized online.Note 23 Among women, before-tax household income was found to be associated with having experienced cyberstalking. Compared with women who reported less than $40,000, women who reported $40,000 to less than $80,000 had a lower probability of being cyberstalked (7% versus 11%), as did those who reported $80,000 or more (7% versus 11%). In contrast, household income was not a significant predictor of having experienced cyberstalking among men.

The results of the model also confirmed the association between past experiences with violence and cyberstalking. For instance, the probability of being cyberstalked was significantly higher among women who had experienced both physical and sexual abuse before age 15 (15%) and also among those who experienced either one of these forms of abuse (10%), compared with women who did not report being abused as a child (6%). A similar relationship was observed for men. In addition, having witnessed violence involving at least one parent before the age of 15 was also associated with experiencing cyberstalking among both women (10%, compared with 7% for those who did not experience it) and men (8% versus 5%). Such results are in line with previous research showing that children who witness violence are more likely to experience it themselves in childhood and in adulthood.Note 24

The probability of experiencing cyberstalking was also significantly higher among those who had experienced discrimination in the past five years. Among women, those who had such experiences had a higher probability of experiencing cyberstalking (13%) than those who did not experience it (6%). The difference was also significant for men (10% versus 4%).

The probability of experiencing cyberstalking did not vary by sexual orientation, place of birth or Aboriginal identity. At the bivariate level, these variables were all related to a higher probability of experiencing cyberstalking, particularly among women.Note 25 Aboriginal women, for instance, were more likely to be cyberstalked than non-Aboriginal women (15% versus 7%); no significant difference was found between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men. Similarly, over 15% of women who were homosexual or bi-sexual reported that they were cyberstalked, compared with 7% among women who were heterosexual (similar results were found for men). The proportion was also higher for women born in Canada than it was for those born outside the country (no such relationship was found for men). These differences, however, are no longer significant in the model with the inclusion of past experience with violence or discrimination, and the witnessing of parental violence variables.Note 26

There is a relationship between having been cyberstalked and self-rated mental health, and satisfaction with personal safety from crime

Many studies point to the negative impact of cyberstalking on mental health and well-being, and acknowledge that the stalking does not have to be physical (or offline) to cause harm.Note 27 Some may find the experience of cyberstalking particularly distressing, given their constant accessibility via cell phone, email and social media. Furthermore, previous research has suggested that in cases where cyberstalking involves social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), the unwanted messages or inappropriate information may be immediately visible to one’s family and friends, thus simultaneously harming one’s psychological well-being and reputation.

The relationship between cyberstalking, self-rated mental health and self-rated satisfaction of personal safety from crime is examined in this section. The General Social Survey does not allow for causal relationships to be established—it provides an association between these variables. The results are based on separate modelsNote 28 for each mental health and satisfaction-of-personal-safety-from-crime indicator as a dependent variable, and include experience with cyberstalking in the past five years as one of the explanatory variables.

Results indicate that women who had been cyberstalked within the previous five years had a 67% probability of reporting “very good” or “excellent” mental health, compared with 74% for their counterparts who had not experienced cyberstalking (Table 2). This was also the case for men. Men who had been cyberstalked in the previous five years had a lower probability of reporting their mental health as “very good” or “excellent” compared with those who had not been cyberstalked (70% versus 75%).

Table 2
Indicators of self-rated mental health and satisfaction with personal safety from crime, women and men aged 18 and over, by cyberstalking experience in the past five years,Table 2 Note 1 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Indicators of self-rated mental health and satisfaction with personal safety from crime Indicator , Self-rated mental health is "very good" or "excellent", Self-rated satisfaction with personal safety from crime is "satisfied" or "very satisfied", "Not at all worried" about safety from crime when home alone in the evening or at night and "Not at all worried" about safety from crime when walking home alone in the evening or at night, calculated using predicted probability units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Indicator
Self-rated mental health is "very good" or "excellent" Self-rated satisfaction with personal safety from crime is "satisfied" or "very satisfied" "Not at all worried" about safety from crime when home alone in the evening or at nightTable 2 Note 2 "Not at all worried" about safety from crime when walking home alone in the evening or at nightTable 2 Note 3
predicted probability
Men
Who were cyberstalked 0.70Note * 0.90 0.94 0.93
Who were not cyberstalked (ref.) 0.75 0.92 0.95 0.94
Women
Who were cyberstalked 0.67Note * 0.80Note * 0.77Note * 0.66
Who were not cyberstalked (ref.) 0.74 0.86 0.83 0.70

Among women, a relationship existed between experiencing cyberstalking and satisfaction with personal safety from crime. Women who had been cyberstalked in the previous five years had a lower probability of rating their satisfaction with personal safety from crime as “satisfied” or “very satisfied” (80%), compared with those who had not been cyberstalked (86%). No such relationship was observed for men.

Similarly, the probability of a woman stating that she was "not at all worried" about her personal safety from crime when home alone in the evening or at night was lower for those who had experienced cyberstalking in the previous five years (77%) than for those who had not experienced cyberstalking (83%). This relationship was not observed among men.

Conclusion

This study confirms previous findings that the prevalence of cyberstalking is higher among women than men. Although the risk factors associated with cyberstalking were similar between women and men, there was one notable exception—household income. Specifically, women who reported lower household income had a higher probability of being cyberstalked than their counterparts with a higher income. This association was not observed among men.

In addition, for both women and men, past experiences with violence are significant factors associated with having experienced cyberstalking in the previous five years. All else being equal, a higher probability of being cyberstalked was observed among those who had experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse, as well as among those who had witnessed violence involving at least one parent in their childhood, than among those who had not had such experiences.

Although experiencing cyberstalking was related to poorer self-reported mental health for both women and men, women who were cyberstalked were less satisfied with their personal safety from crime. This study’s findings draw attention to gender differences in cyberstalking across Canada, adding to the conversation currently under way in Canada on gender-based violence.

Amanda Burlock is an analyst with the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division at Statistics Canada, and Tamara Hudon is now a senior research and evaluation advisor with Research, Evaluation and Planning at Status of Women Canada. The production of this analytical report was supported by funding from Status of Women Canada.

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Data sources, methods and definitions

Data sources

This study uses data from the 2014 General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization). The target population consisted of the non-institutionalized Canadian population aged 15 and over, living in the 10 Canadian provinces (excluding the territories). The data were collected throughout the 2014 calendar year. Responding to the survey is voluntary and the data are collected directly from the survey respondents (self-declared). The 2014 Victimization Survey had a final sample size of 33,127 and a 52.9% response rate. Self-reported data are different from police-reported data because not all incidents are necessarily reported to police.

Methods

Only women and men who indicated that they had used the Internet at least once during the past five years were included in this study. All estimates in this study take the survey design into account, including a bootstrapping technique that was applied to calculate all estimates of variance. For this study, separate logistic regression models were conducted for women and men and their results were presented as predicted probabilities. Unless otherwise stated, “don’t know,” “refusal” and “not stated” responses were excluded from the denominators used when calculating proportions.

Estimates with coefficients of variation equal to or greater than 16.6% and less than 33.3% should be interpreted with caution; these are noted E in the tables and charts. Estimates with coefficients of variation greater than or equal to 33.3% were suppressed.

Readers should note that the data used in this study are cross-sectional and the analyses presented are correlational. Causal relationships cannot be inferred.

Definitions

The sample in this study was restricted to those who had indicated that they used the Internet at least once during the past five years. Two measures were used to determine whether a respondent had experienced cyberstalking in the past five years and are part of a larger suite of stalking variables. These two measures and the percentage of “yes” responses are shown in Table 3, by sex.

Table 3
Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who answered “yes” to the cyberstalking questions, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of women and men aged 15 and over who answered “yes” to the cyberstalking questions Women and Men, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Women Men
percent
In the past 5 years, have you been the subject of repeated and unwanted attention that caused you to fear for your safety or the safety of someone known to you? By that I mean...
Stalking (communication): In the past 5 years, have you been the subject of repeated and unwanted attention that caused you to fear for your safety or the safety of someone known by you? By that I mean has anyone sent you unwanted messages through e-mail, text, Facebook or any other social media? 7.0 4.8
Stalking (threat): In the past 5 years, have you been the subject of repeated and unwanted attention that caused you to fear for your safety or the safety of someone known by you? By that I mean has anyone posted inappropriate, unwanted or personal information about you or pictures on a social media site? 1.3 1.5
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