Researchers seek to find true level of cyberstalking

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Media captionFormer TV presenter Alexis Bowater: "I was cyberstalked during my pregnancy"

A new survey has been launched in an effort to find out the true level of cyberstalking in the UK.

It comes a day after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) unveiled new guidance to prosecutors and promised to get tough on cyberstalkers.

More than one million women and 900,000 men are stalked in the UK every year, according to the British Crime Survey.

But until now no research has been done to find out how many people are stalked or harassed online.

On Friday the Electronic Communication Harassment Observation (Echo) survey, commissioned by the charity Network for Surviving Stalking, was launched by researchers at the University of Bedfordshire.

They are hoping to find people who have been stalked, harassed or threatened through e-mail, on internet chatrooms or on social networking sites like Facebook.

Project leader Dr Emma Short said: "There are stalkers for whom the internet and mobile phones are just convenient 'tools of their trade'.

"But we think there are also vast numbers of internet users who are engaged in harassing behaviours simply because they don't know the rules of appropriate online communication.

"At the moment there are very few widely agreed guidelines or rules about how to behave online - we hope Echo will define behaviours that are generally experienced as anti-social or likely to cause distress in online communication."

On Thursday the CPS's community liaison director, Nazir Afzal, said the new guidance to prosecutors was the first time stalking - and cyberstalking in particular - had been officially recognised.

'Fear and trepidation'

Mr Afzal said: "Stalkers steal lives, that was the message I picked up from speaking to victims. Victims stop trusting those they know and every stranger is seen as a threat.

"People often can't answer the phone, receive texts or go to a familiar place without fear and trepidation. We want to give people their lives back."

Alexis Bowater, chief executive for the Network for Surviving Stalking, welcomed the new CPS guidelines.

She said: "This will go a long way to improving the lives of victims and to making sure that perpetrators are treated appropriately by the courts. Recognising, in particular, new forms of stalking such as cyberstalking is groundbreaking."

Liz Lynne, Lib Dem MEP for the West Midlands, said: "The crime of cyberstalking has exploded across Europe with the growth of the internet and social networking sites.

"It is not just celebrities who attract stalkers, nor is it just something that affects teenagers."

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