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The following post was written by guest blogger Dr. Emily Perlow, Alpha Lambda–The Ohio State University, Harm Prevention Strategist volunteer for the Fraternity. She is the Assistant Dean of Students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where she has helped support student growth and success for 15 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all conduct our lives throughout the world. What you thought the spring semester would look like has been turned upside down. Many of us have returned to our homes and are doing our best to practice social distancing. If you’re an undergraduate, your college campus is likely now conducting all learning and engagement virtually and there’s no doubt that you’re missing your sisters, friends, coworkers and significant others.

In this time of stress and uncertainty, we tend to see comfort by seeking connection with others. In normal times, that would be a long hug, a good talk over some coffee or a pint of ice cream or holding hands with or kissing someone with whom we’re intimately involved.

Now, we’ve no choice but to turn to social media to find that source of connection. Whether it’s a series of funny Snapchat stories, Instagram posts of the ways we’re staving off boredom, or a video chat session with the new member class, we’re all hungry to stay connected.

While we seek that connection, it’s also important to practice safety. Stalking, digital dating abuse and online harassment can take place online. With nearly all communication taking place digitally right now, it’s important to be aware.

  • Sexual Harassment is defined as unwanted verbal or physical conduct, sexual advances or requests for favors of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can take place through digital formats through the sending of unwanted messages, images or videos and pressure to reciprocate those images.
  • Stalking is repeated, unwanted contact that can cause a person to feel fear. It can include sending unwanted communication through email or social media, monitoring someone’s whereabouts or activity or posting threatening or personal information on social media platforms.
  • Digital dating abuse is a form of relationship violence that includes repeated, unwanted contact designed to threaten, pressure or intimidate a dating partner. This often includes repeated, controlling or insulting text messages, emails or phone calls, bullying posts in public social media platforms, pressure to send nude or private photos or videos, control over who a partner has contact with on social media platforms or insistence on managing a partner’s accounts by asking them to share their passwords.

While most of the time you can safely communicate on social media without fear that you may experience harassment, stalking or dating abuse, it’s important to practice these online safety steps.

  • Think carefully about what you post on social media. Consider managing your privacy setting to control who can view your information on social media—your accounts need not be open to everyone. Avoid posting personal details about yourself on friend’s pages and think carefully before posting your location or personal contact information as this can make it easier for someone to monitor your whereabouts. 
  • Think twice before texting that photo. Before you click send on text content, a photo or video that you believe may be private, think about whether you would feel comfortable with everyone seeing it. If your answer is no, perhaps it is best not to share it. Remember, you lose control of any image once you send it.
  • You don’t have to receive inappropriate content. If someone is sending you content that you don’t want to receive, whether that be text messages or images or videos—if you can do so safely—clearly and directly tell them you do not want them to send you that content or to contact you further. You can also block them on your social media account or flag the content as inappropriate on the social media platform. If they are a fellow student on your campus or another campus, contact your campus Title IX coordinator and they can provide you with some guidance about other steps you can take.
  • Don’t encourage the behavior. If you are feeling like you are being stalked through email or text messaging, if you can safely do so, make it clear that you wish to stop having contact. This means being direct and firm. Once you’ve made it clear, do not respond to any further messages. If they continue, consider blocking further communication.
  • Don’t give in to gaslighting. Gaslighting happens when an abuser denies the feelings and thoughts of their partner to the point where their partner starts to question their reality. In a healthy relationship, a partner would not try to control someone’s behaviors, put them down or call them names because they don’t want to share private content or engage in sexting. If someone does this to you, remember your feelings are valid and you do not have to comply.
  • Don’t give in to the pressure. You don’t have to do or share anything you don’t want to share. That includes sharing images, videos, passwords, or information.

Here’s what you can do to have a healthy experience online:

  • Set boundaries on how you want to communicate with partners and let your partner know clearly and concisely if they are crossing a boundary.
  • Your dating partners, if they’re worth dating, will respect your wishes.
  • Healthy relationships are based on trust and that means neither partner should feel the need to look through the other partner’s social media accounts or know their whereabouts. You never have to share your passwords with anyone.
  • It’s okay to turn off or put down your phone. You have the right to be alone and spend time with friends and family without needing to respond immediately.
  • If anyone makes you uncomfortable, report it to someone: a family member, your campus Title IX coordinator, or, where appropriate, the police.
  • Use your resources. RAINN, an organization focused on supporting survivors, offers a number of resources on stalking as well as staying safe online. Loveisrespect, which focuses on helping young people have healthy dating relationships, offers great resources on healthy relationships.

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