Is Cyberbullying Illegal? When Comments Turn Criminal
It’s no surprise that cyberbullying has been a hot topic lately. With the rapid progression of technological abilities, the age-old issue of bullying has moved to the more anonymous—but no less harmful—digital world.
Recent research reports that 58 percent of kids admit to receiving hurtful comments online. About 75 percent of students have visited a website bashing another student while about 70 percent of students report seeing frequent bullying online.
And with the denouncement of cyberbullying by national figures, the problem is well on its way to attracting unprecedented attention. But in the midst of it all, it’s difficult to parse what cyberbullying really means at a legal level.
Is cyberbullying illegal? Could it result in jail time? Keep reading for expert insights and clarity on the legal ramifications of cyberbullying.
What is cyberbullying, anyway?
“Cyberbullying is the platform the twenty-first century bully uses to inflict pain and humiliation upon another,” says author and speaker Dr. John DeGarmo of The Foster Care Institute. “The use of technology to embarrass, threaten, tease, harass or even target another person.” DeGarmo emphasizes the danger of cyberbullying in how inescapable it can be.
“Today’s bully can follow the targeted victim wherever that child may go,” he explains. “Whether the child is in school, at home ... whenever that bullied child has access to online technology, he or she can be bullied.” He adds that this form of bullying can be non-stop; twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
"Today's bully can follow the targeted victim wherever that child may go."
DeGarmo stresses that bullying is on the upswing. Online platforms create easy, accessible opportunities for harassment—to the point that witnessing cruelty online is the norm for many. “Younger people see that on Twitter all the time,” he says. “It’s become part of their daily lives, and it’s a breakdown of compassion.”
Because cyberbullies can’t witness the effect of their words, they use less restraint than they would in face-to-face situations. This emotional and physical detachment allows them to harass others, in some cases without truly realizing they’ve become a bully. But if you are thinking cyberbullying can never harm someone as much as a punch or getting shoved into a locker, think again.
“We see a significant number of young people who have experienced cyberbullying,” says Dr. Jeff Nalin of Paradigm Malibu. “We have seen young people traumatized from a variety of events ranging from character assassination to revenge porn and taunts to engage in destructive behaviors, including suicide.”
With the possibility of such severe ramifications, it begs the question: Is this a criminal offense?
Is cyberbullying a crime?
“Yes, there can be legal consequences,” says attorney and founder of Carter Law Firm, Ruth Carter. “Depending on the rules of your state and the circumstances involved, discipline can include expulsion from school, criminal charges for harassment and/or civil lawsuits for defamation and other harms.”
"The last thing anyone wants is a suicide or school shooting because of cyberbullying."
DeGarmo adds that due to the prevalence of the issue, most schools have created specific policies for cyberbullying. “Ten years ago, no one gave much thought to this issue,” he says. “But now, schools are paying more attention. The last thing anyone wants is a suicide or school shooting because of cyberbullying.”
The consequences for cyberbullies depend on the specific circumstance. Many cyberbullying cases wind up getting prosecuted as harassment. Some cases result in civil court, while others might warrant criminal charges and prosecution for hate crimes, impersonation, harassment, cyberbullying and violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
In addition to the larger laws, individual states have their own rules for cyberbullying. Stopbullying.gov offers a state-by-state map to highlight the specific policies.
But where do we draw the line between what cyberbullying is and what it isn’t? What are some of the specific crimes cyberbullying can fall under? See this quick list below for reference.
Here is a list of potentially criminal forms of cyberbullying, as listed by Stomp Out Bullying:
- Harassing someone, especially if the harassment is based on gender, race or other protected classes
- Making violent threats
- Making death threats
- Making obscene and harassing phone calls and texts
- Sextortion, which is sexual exploitation
- Child pornography
- Stalking someone
- Committing hate crimes
- Taking a photo of someone in a place where they expect privacy
If you are unsure about whether or not a specific behavior counts as cyberbullying, Carter says the best course of action is to ask for help. “Review the rules and go to the proper authority, depending on what avenue you’re pursuing and ask if a particular behavior or situation is a violation,” she suggests.
Carter advises anyone feeling harassed by a possible cyberbully to keep copies of harassing messages, screenshots of social media posts and video of the date, profile information of who posted it and the URL.
What are the long-term consequences of cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying could land you in court, get you fired, expelled or even arrested. But in addition to the trouble cyberbullies might face with authorities for a specific instance, both Carter and DeGarmo mention more long-term consequences.
“What goes online stays online,” DeGarmo says. “People can find it. Those posts and comments won’t just go away.”
"The courts have already ruled that there's no such thing as privacy online."
DeGarmo recalls seeing applicants lose job opportunities because their potential employers went online to research the candidates and their social media platforms. “It’s becoming a more common practice for employers,” he says.
“What you thought was justified or funny in the moment may be tomorrow's regret,” Carter points out. “Once you put something out there, you can never fully take it back. My rule is don't put anything online that you wouldn't put on the front page of a newspaper.”
Carter has worked on several cases where social media posts became evidence or significant research factors in court. “The courts have already ruled that there’s no such thing as privacy online,” she adds.
Where is the issue of cyberbullying headed?
“Our culture has made a major shift for the better in identifying and addressing face-to-face bullying,” Nalin says. “Because the media is currently putting energy and focus on cyberbullying, it seems likely that we will be able to do the same in the online arena.”
Indeed, many anti-bullying campaigns are calling for increased uniformity and policy in how our society deals with cyberbullying. Sameer Hinduja recently wrote on the topic on behalf of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “We go into schools all the time and administrators simply don’t know what they should do (and not do) to really make a difference,” he wrote. He calls for clear, practical guidance from the federal government for schools to understand how to reduce online (and offline) harassment and promote peer respect, tolerance and kindness.
“I hope the lesson of ‘think before you post’ is being instilled and frequently repeated to young people when they get their first device or social media accounts,” Carter says. “If you’re angry, upset or in another heightened emotional state, don’t post about it.” If you feel you need to vent about it, she suggests writing it down or creating a video for personal use. But she urges you never to put it on the internet, regardless of the privacy settings.
Crime and technology
So is cyberbullying illegal? The answer to that is that it can be, and it is increasingly likely to have consequences for perpetrators. As cyberbullying has attracted greater attention, parents, educators, lawmakers and tech companies are hustling to create solutions. But the speed at which our technological capabilities develop is hard to match in legal infrastructure and the justice system.
Cyberbullying isn’t the only issue where technology and the legal system crosses wires. Learn about another example of the intersection of crime and technology in our article: Has Technology Outrun the Law? What We Learned from the Apple vs. FBI Case.
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