Cyberbullying – Is it a crime?

Cyberbullying has gained increased notoriety in recent years. With the First Lady’s platform focusing on reducing cyberbullying, one can expect there to be renewed interest in legislating and protecting kids against cyber crimes. But what is the state of the law now, and how effective has it been?

Cyberbullying is essentially the act of harassing or stalking someone else through digital or electronic means. Teenagers typically use social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and even Snapchat to bully one another, very often anonymously and en masse. Most of the legislation on the books is focused on the duty of schools to monitor bullying. Many states require schools to create an anti-bullying policy that also includes electronic or digital communications, and must disseminate this information to both parents and students, including posting on the school or district’s website. The problem is, these policies and rules about cyberbullying or bullying do not extend past school grounds or designated events held off campus. Most cyberbullying therefore usually occurs after-hours, when students are at home. Therefore, states have begun to develop and expand the laws on the books in an effort to fill in the gaps.

Given the huge respect the United States has for freedom of speech, there is a difficult balancing act in crafting legislation that protects this speech but also recognizes how harmful it can be, and therefore needs to be criminalized in some respects. Usually, cyberbullying becomes criminal if the harassment is based on gender or racism, makes violent threats or threatens death, includes child pornography or other sexually explicit content, turns into stalking or harassment, or, most commonly, taking photos of someone else when they expect privacy. Unfortunately, cyberbullying becomes taken most seriously when someone loses their life – usually as a result of suicide. It is difficult to find accurate statistics on suicide from cyberbullying; however, higher rates of suicidal ideation are more strongly related to instances of cyberbullying over traditional bullying.

Currently, fifteen states have laws which specifically make cyberbullying a crime. Their sanctions vary from state to state. Punishment ranges from school interventions (like suspension or expulsion), criminal fines, and can even come with jail time if charged with a misdemeanor or felony level of cyberbullying. There have only been a few cases of cyberbullying indictments, but they are typically newsworthy. Most of the victims are adolescents, including Megan Meier, who was a victim of cyberbullying from another teenage girl’s mother. However, convictions have been difficult to come by, given the reluctance of courts to criminalize online speech, or criminalize breaches of contract if the perpetrators are in violation of certain websites terms and conditions.

It typically comes down to dispute resolution via civil litigation or between private parties, often with social media websites having to enforce their own terms and conditions before cyberbullying escalates. For example, Twitter has blocked users from using their website when they begin cyberbullying other users. Most websites have departments focused on preventing online abuse and harassment, although many users are unaware of it. Facebook estimates that only 37% of abusive incidents are reported through its site. Teenagers are reluctant to tell anyone, feeling they would be tattling – or perhaps because sometimes they are not even sure who is doing the bullying. Therefore, parents need to be vigilant in monitoring their children’s online use, with access to all passwords and keeping lines of communication open so their children feel they can report instances of harassment to their parents.

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