Teens & Stalking-Like Behaviors

The who and how of stalking among teens.

black-and-white-1284465_1920The word “stalker” often conjures up a mental image reminiscent of a bad guy on a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode. Stalkers are usually imagined to be adult, male, and more often than not, doing creepy things to someone ‘in person’. But does this match reality? What if the stalker is a teen boy sitting behind a computer screen? Or a teen girl installing a tracking device on her partner’s cell phone? With the emergence of new technologies, and their swift adoption among teens, it’s important to not only consider that adolescents could be engaging in stalker-like behaviors, but also that it could be happening through digital means.

Our Growing up with Media study looked at how often 14-21 year olds across America engage in stalker-like behaviors. We asked young people if they had ever carried out any of the following activities that have the potential to reflect stalking behavior:

  1. Hyper-intimacy: Tried to get someone’s attention by doing something “over the top”
  2. Following: Followed or spied on someone without them knowing
  3. Intrusive Pursuit: Tried to “talk” with someone when it seemed like they did not want you to
  4. Aggression: Damaged or destroyed someone’s things that they loved
  5. Threats: Threatened to hurt someone or yourself if they did not pay attention to you
  6. Surveillance: Downloaded a GPS or tracking program to their cell phone without them knowing

Stalking-like behaviors are fairly common among young people: over a third of youth have acted out at least one of these behaviors. 1 in 6 said they have done two or more in their lifetime. Among those who have acted out these behaviors, 12% did it to more than one person in the past year.

The most common behavior was trying to talk with someone when it seemed like the other person did not want them to. Downloading a GPS or tracking program to someone’s cell phone without the other person knowing was the least common behavior.

Despite stereotypical views of stalkers as male, female youth reported engaging in these behaviors just as often as males.

Technology vs In-Person

While nearly 70% of youth who reported stalking behaviors acted out one or more of these behaviors in-person, some youth used digital technologies (cell phones, the internet) to engage in stalking-like behaviors. Almost half of the youth who reported engaging in stalking-like behaviors did so via text message. The internet was the digital avenue of choice for about one third of youth who engaged in stalker-like behavior. In other words, most stalking is still taking place in-person, but use of tech to stalk is significant.

What Can We Do?

Despite the potential impact that these behaviors may have on the person targeted, not many youth admitted to actually wanting to frighten, upset, anger, annoy, or do any harm to the other person. In fact, only one in five young people who perpetrated these behaviors said this was their intent. It’s possible that teens and young adults lack awareness of how their behavior might be received. They may think their actions are part of normal dating behavior. If so, some youth could benefit from discussions with adults about how to communicate and form relationships in healthy ways. It’s also possible that context may help explain why youth thought their behavior was ok. For example, when asked about following someone without them knowing, a youth could answer ‘yes’ and be referring to following a famous person online. Talking to our kids is the best way to hear about what is going on and to open up opportunities for guidance on both sides of the age spectrum. Given that more than 1 in 3 youth are engaged in these stalker-like behaviors, it’s critical that both awareness and prevention efforts are made.

This article was written based on findings from: Ybarra M. L., Langhinrichsen-Rohling J., & Mitchell K. J. (2016, March 17). Stalking-Like Behavior in Adolescence: Prevalence, Intent, and Associated Characteristics. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040145

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Myeshia Price-Feeney and Hannah Madison for their contributions to this blog.