73 percent of Internet users say they have witnessed online hara - WMBFNews.com, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

73 percent of Internet users say they have witnessed online harassment

 MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - You may be surprised to hear how many people say they have been or have seen someone harassed in some way online. In some cases, harassment can turn serious and physically dangerous.

Seventy-three percent of people who use the internet say they have seen someone harassed online, and 40 percent have experienced it themselves - not just name calling - receiving physical threats, being stalked, and even sexually harassed.

The most common place it takes place, you guessed it, on social media sites. The Pew Research Center talked with almost 3,000 web users. They agreed almost unanimously that the online environment allows people to be more critical of others.

The research uncovered there are two categories of online harassment. First is name calling and embarrassment. “Sometimes it takes a little while to determine when does it cross over from somebody just making comments in a public forum," says Lt. Kenneth Hofmann with the Surfside Beach Police Department. "If you put yourself out in a public forum, then you're also putting yourself out. If you put yourself out, you put yourself out for those opinions to be criticized.” A situation like that is protected by the freedom of speech.

"If that harassment continues on through social media, or any other type, whether it's email, text messaging, or phone communication, as a way to monitor somebody's movements or be where they are, then you're getting into the stalking,” Lt. Hofmann continues.

The second type of online harassment involves the physical threats, harassment over a period of time, stalking and sexual harassment. Young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and stalking.

"What we also ask is that the victims quickly communicate to anybody that's engaging in that behavior to stop," according to Lt. Hofmann. "That's one of the things that the statute requires - that that person was told to stop what they were doing."

But if they don't stop, it becomes harassment or stalking. "Speak to an officer. Come in to the police department, we'll be glad to sit down and talk with them about it and try to determine," Lt. Hofmann said.

Police say one thing people do that opens them up to potentially dangerous harassment, is create public profiles that anyone can see, and allow anyone to track your movements. Don't accept people you don't know, and if you ask someone to leave you alone and they don't, it may be time to contact police.

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