Sliding into Direct Misconduct: Addressing Social Media Harassment


Illustration by Sam Ko ’19.

Jeanine Kim

This piece was updated to include additional sourcing on young women and online harassment. 

After posting photos from her new photoshoot, Annabel Zimmer ’20 opened her phone, expecting supportive comments from friends. Instead, she said she was hit with a barrage of unwelcome private messages from strangers and suspicious requests from unknown people.

“It’s really disheartening to see random men send girls whatever they want just because they think they can get away with it,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer, a photographer with a sizeable following on both her private and her public photography accounts, said she has been using social media for over six years and has experienced many different forms of harassment over the years.

While she said she gets positive comments from followers, she also gets her fair share of unwanted messages.

Many other girls have experienced some form of social media harassment, from comments on their appearances to attacks on their opinions, Ginebra Ferreira ’20 and Gabriela Martinez Celaya ’20 said.

Zimmer said she has received messages from older people who compliment her appearance and comment on her body. Although most of the subjects in her photos are her friends, she’ll occasionally post a photo of herself or a behind-the-scenes on her Instagram story. In response, she’s gotten comments about her appearance, some people calling her “beautiful” or remarking on her face rather than her work, she said.

Zimmer said her social media changed from a platform for her work to a way for people to contact her for their own reasons.

“Just because someone posts about their lives on social media doesn’t give others the right to seek them out and send things to their private email,” Zimmer said. “There are boundaries that people shouldn’t cross, and it’s something that everyone should realize.”

In fact, one of Zimmer’s followers once used her social media to find her work email, which she uses for photoshoot purposes only, she said. However, she said this stranger used it to find her personal account, which he tried to use to contact her.

Zimmer is 16, and so are many of the subjects that she shoots. Despite being underage, many of the people who contact her are adults, she said. Not only is it a violation of her privacy, but when she receives messages, it is actually illegal, as it is under the age of consent according to California State Legislature.

Being underage on social media means sacrificing freedom and privacy, but it can also be potentially dangerous, especially for those in school, Ferreira said.

There are other forms of harassment women experience on social media. While sexual comments may be more common, there are additional ways of making women feel uncomfortable online, Zimmer said, such as attacks on their political beliefs or questions about their families.

Ferreira has a public Instagram account and said she has also been sent messages and comments on her photos, mostly about her body.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve felt violated by any of these comments, but there’s something that is scary and off-putting about people you don’t know commenting on your body and appearance,” Ferreira said.

Ferreira said that some of her posts can be misinterpreted by her followers, who don’t understand the meanings behind her photos.

“I think all women are vulnerable to this harassment but especially ones that happen to have more followers or tend to post ‘scandalous’ pictures which to them can simply be empowering,” Ferreira said.

Likewise, when Martinez Celaya sees explicit messages from strangers, she said she feels disappointed by the people online. While she said that she can see how social media can be a way to meet new people, many of the comments she’s received are not what she’s expected.

“Whenever I receive weird or disturbing comments and messages, it catches me off guard,” Martinez Celaya said. “It’s never something I expect to find when checking my phone,no matter how many times it happens.”

Martinez Celaya’s experiences have gone further than just comments. When she ignored these men, they responded with insults and aggression, she said.

“I think this shows a sense of entitlement within a large number of men in society and this issue is something that needs to be solved,” Martinez Celaya said. “Men must realize that women do not owe them anything in life and no matter what, women have every right to reject their advances.”

To both Zimmer and Ferreira, these instances are just examples of a larger issue regarding behavior on social media.

“People need to be more conscious, and there really should be more awareness about etiquette when it comes to matters of social media,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer, the daughter of composer Hans Zimmer, has received direct messages from aspiring musicians. To Zimmer, she said it detracts from the purpose of the account, which is to showcase her own work.

“I’m not here to serve the purpose of sharing music with my father,” Zimmer said. “What I do is completely separate from that.”

Additionally, there is danger with being opinionated online. As people become more politically active on social media, users can be vulnerable to those who disagree with their opinions, Ferreira said.

Dahlia Low ’20 has been attacked for the political views she expresses on her Instagram. She said she has had to block people for commenting on things she’s posted and attacking her beliefs.

Low, who considers herself a liberal, has even had a stranger DM her, sending conservative articles and constantly messaging her, which she responded to until she realized he wasn’t going to to stop, she said. After the frequent messaging didn’t stop, she said she just blocked him.

Low’s account used to be public, but after all the harassment she has been sent, she said she felt compelled to switch it to private.

“Women are not only more vulnerable, but I know that they’re more restricted as well,” Low said. “I know for a fact that women are more likely to get blocked or have accounts taken down for expressing their honest opinions while there are literal troll accounts run by men which do nothing but harass others, and those remain active.”

Young women are the most likely to be affected by social media harassment and are the most likely to self-censor their content, according to Center for Innovative Public Health Research (2016). Furthermore, according to Pew Research (2017), women are more likely to be sexually harassed online.  

Low’s experience as a woman speaking out on social media has been an eye-opening journey for her, she said. She said she feels that she’s changed the way she uses social media because of the harassment she has faced.

“People feel safe behind a screen, sending violating comments about a woman’s body or the way she portrays herself online, and that’s an issue we need to face,” Low said.