It begins like any high school romance: Boy meets Girl.
Boy asks for Girl’s number. They start to date. Boy shows his devotion by waiting for Girl outside of all of her classes, and texting and messaging constantly. Eventually, Girl feels overwhelmed, and tells Boy that they should just be friends.
But he continues to wait for her outside of her classes, even though she tells him to stop. He leaves notes in her locker, and sends her Snapchats all day long. He tags her in all of his Facebook posts, even though she’s told him it makes her uncomfortable. She mentioned her job at an after-school program, and now, he’s sent in his application.
The boy’s attention made her feel scared and uncomfortable, but she thought he was just socially unaware. It wasn’t until we talked in my office at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center that she realized that she was being stalked.
When repeated, unwanted attention makes a person feel threatened, it’s considered stalking, and it’s a crime. Among teenagers, stalking is frighteningly common. Nearly half of all female stalking survivors said they were stalked before the age of 25, and one in five female victims were stalked before the age of 17. But many teens that I work with don’t know what stalking is, or how to distinguish between admittedly awkward displays of affection, and behaviors that are inappropriate and illegal.
And why would they? In the media, the stalker is a scary stranger who hides in the bushes outside of a woman’s house, or calls and breathes heavily into the phone. In real life, most people are stalked by someone they already know, usually a current or former partner. TV and movies, though, have a tendency to hail stalkers as romantic heroes. In this context, teens might find stalking behaviors threatening and uncomfortable, but can’t define why it’s wrong — and therefore, don’t seek help.
The media provides models of unhealthy relationships, but we also have ourselves to blame. We’re not having important conversations about healthy relationships with the young people in our lives. As a nation, our health ed classes barely teach proper condom use, let alone healthy boundaries. As parents, we don’t always know how to start these conversations with our children, particularly if our own relationships haven’t always been perfect. But we need to talk, even when it’s awkward or hard or uncomfortable. If we don’t, young people can become victims of stalking, and not even realize.