What is cyber abuse?

Cyber abuse is online behaviour which is reasonably likely to have a seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating effect on a person. It is behaviour that threatens to hurt a person socially, psychologically or even physically.

It can take place in various online spaces, like chat rooms, on social networking sites, through emails, messaging apps or on message boards.

Cyber abuse can also involve a range of behaviours, some of which are described as:

  • trolling
  • flaming
  • cyberbullying
  • cyber hate
  • cyber violence
  • cyber mobbing
  • cyber stalking
  • cyber harassment
  • cyber racism and online hate speech
  • technology-facilitated abuse
  • sextortion
  • image-based abuse

Terms like ‘trolling’, ‘cyber hate’ and ‘cyber harassment’ are often used interchangeably to refer to the same type of abuse.

These terms can sometimes be used to describe behaviour that may not necessarily be serious enough to be considered ‘cyber abuse’.  While some online behaviours and comments might be inappropriate or hurtful, they may not always constitute cyber abuse. Some examples can include:

  • sarcastic comments
  • insults
  • strong opposing views
  • off-topic statements that deliberately derail conversation threads

These behaviours may, however, reach the threshold of being considered a form of cyber abuse if there is a larger or serious pattern of targeted online abuse, and therefore likely to have a seriously threatening, intimidating, harassing or humiliating effect on a person. 

What are some examples of cyber abuse?

  • sharing intimate or sexual photos or videos online without consent—either to humiliate or shame someone, or for the ‘entertainment’ of others (this is also known as image-based abuse)
  • targeted and persistent personal attacks aimed at ridiculing, insulting, damaging or humiliating a person—this might relate to a range of things, like someone’s physical appearance, religion, gender, race, disability, sexual orientation and/or political beliefs
  • encouraging vulnerable people to self-harm and/or suicide
  • seriously offensive and shocking material—depending on the context and severity, it can include posting inflammatory comments on memorial and tribute pages or posting images of deceased people with intent to upset family members or others
  • repeatedly sending obscene messages to a person or their family, friends or work colleagues
  • posting digitally manipulated explicit images of a person online, for example on social media or on pornographic websites
  • posting someone’s personal information on social media or elsewhere online along with offensive and/or sexual comments—resulting in calls and visits from strangers
  • threatening violence or inciting others to do the same—such as threats of death and sexual assault that might lead to real life contact
  • stalking a person online and hacking into their accounts—such as social media, banking, email accounts

What can I do?

Remove their power:

  • report the person being abusive to the website or social media administrators—if they reappear under a different name, report them again
  • don’t respond to their comments—it can be hard, but try to ignore them
  • use all the tools available to block or mute them—if they reappear under a different name, block or mute them again
  • back each other up online—support anyone who is the target of online abuse, without directly engaging with the person being abusive
  • minimise exposure—if possible, try to switch off at certain times of the day and/or create safe havens, for example keep your device out of your bedroom at night

What else can I do?

  • tell us what is happening to you by reporting it here
  • social media services should remove cyberbullying material reported to them that relates to a person under 18 years. In these cases you can:
    • report the cyberbullying material to the social media service it happened on—most social media services will have a Help or Reporting section on their site (you can find more information on our social media safety centres page)
    • if the reported cyberbullying content has not been taken down within 48 hours, you can make a complaint by reporting it to us
  • visit our image-based abuse page—we provide strategies and steps you can take when an intimate image of you has been shared without your consent
  • visit our eSafetyWomen site—it contains information on how to look out for signs of online abuse and cyber stalking and provides advice and tips on how to stay safe online

Get support

  • try to be aware of how you are feeling and the impact it might be having on you
  • talk about it with trusted friends and family
  • if you are struggling to get through a negative online experience, think about getting extra support through counselling and crisis support services. You can try:
    • eHeadspace—1800 650 890  (for 12-25-year-olds)
    • Kids Helpline—1800 55 1800 (for 5-25-year-olds)
    • Lifeline—13 11 14 (for crisis support and suicide prevention)
    • Beyond Blue—1300 22 4636 (for anxiety, depression and suicide prevention)
    • 1800 Respect—1300 737 732 (for sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling)
    • counselling through your local GP or community health service

Do you feel unsafe right now?

  • call Triple Zero (000) if you are in immediate danger
  • contact your local police if:
    • there are threats to your safety
    • there are threats to visit you, your friends or family members

What about the law?

Many forms of cyber abuse could be considered to be illegal under state or federal legislation. For example under the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995 (‘the Act’) it is an offence to menace, harass or cause offence, using a ‘carriage service’. It is also an offence under the Act to use a carriage service to make threats to kill or cause serious harm to a person, regardless of whether the person receiving the threat actually fears that the threat would be carried out. These provisions could capture instances of menacing, harassing or offensive conduct and threats carried out using landlines, mobile phones (e.g. MMS, SMS) and the internet, including emails and social media. For example, using a mobile phone to repeatedly send offensive images to someone.

Most Australian states and territories also have laws covering stalking, blackmail, criminal defamation and various unlawful uses of technology. A number of jurisdictions have also passed laws creating offences for the threat to distribute, or distribution, of intimate images (image-based abuse).

For police to determine whether a crime has been committed or if they are able to begin a criminal investigation, evidence is usually required. This might include screenshots, relevant emails and web addresses. You should be prepared to tell your story to the police. To do this, it might be helpful to make a note of relevant dates and times as well as the location of the abusive material. The police might ask you to make a statement summarising your situation and outlining any evidence you have.

Whether or not the police can take action will depend on a number of factors including context, the severity of the matter, how long the event has been occurring, whether there is sufficient evidence to prove who is carrying out the cyber abuse, and where they are located. If police decide they have enough information to begin a criminal investigation and the matter is heard in court, the court will need to be convinced ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the alleged offender was responsible for the crime committed. This can be quite hard to do, however it has been done successfully before. Whether a matter is successful will depend on the individual case and the strength of the evidence.

Should I get legal advice?

Legal advice can help you determine how to address the cyber abuse you may be experiencing.

Depending on the situation, this could include protection orders to keep a person from contacting you or a claim to sue if your reputation has been harmed by another person posting or sharing offensive material about you. 

Your local Community Legal Centre or Legal Aid in your state or territory may be able to provide this advice.

You can find out more about community legal centres and locate your local community legal centre by visiting the National Association of Community Legal Centres website.

Depending on where you live, you can contact:

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