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What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is harassment that happens via the internet or digital devices. For example, it can happen through text messages, social media posts, and video game chatter. Cyberbullying often includes threats and intimidation. It can also involve the posting or sending of private pictures and information.

Cyberbullying doesn't only affect young people. Anyone online can become a target of harassment. Anyone can suffer severe emotional and reputational harm due to online bullying.

This article discusses cyberbullying from a consumer protection angle. You can also learn about the criminal laws related to cyberbullying.

How Is Cyberbullying Different from Bullying?

Bullying happens in person, but cyberbullying happens via technology.

For example, bullies at school may harass other students at recess. Bullying behavior might involve direct verbal insults and physical assault. The bullying stops once the school day ends and the children return home.

Cyberbullying is different because digital technology is pervasive. Victims may be unable to avoid cyberbullying by simply going home. Even if the victim stays offline, the online bullying may continue to affect their real-world life.

Common Types of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying varies in complexity. Sometimes, it can be as straightforward as harassment over instant messaging or direct texts to the victim's cell phone. But cyberbullying could also involve more deception than traditional bullying.

Some cyberbullies have created fake personal profiles to ridicule a victim. These profiles may be part of a catfishing scam to surveil or embarrass them. They may even use identity theft to pose as someone the victim knows to get sensitive information. Cyberbullies might also create multiple fake accounts to evade a social media platform's blocking feature.

The internet often provides anonymity on forums and chat rooms. People may use "trolling" to incite and offend others for personal amusement. Trolling can vary in intensity, sometimes turning into cyberbullying. Trolls may undermine their behavior by claiming it was just a joke. Yet, cyberbullying is harassment nonetheless.

In some cases, bullies have sent nude or embarrassing pictures of the victim. Cyberbullying that involves sexual content online can quickly become a serious legal matter.

Laws Against Cyberbullying

If you or your child become the target of online harassment, consider your legal rights. The local laws where you live can help stop bullying. In tragic cases of self-harm, suicide, and other serious effects, laws may offer a path to justice.

Federal Cyberbullying Laws

No federal law specifically addresses cyberbullying. But other federal laws can offer protection. If the victim gets bullied because of their race, gender, disability, or religion, then civil rights laws may apply.

State Cyberbullying Laws

Nearly every state has enacted some sort of anti-cyberbullying law, such as:

  • California's education code bans bullying through electronic communications, even outside of school grounds. California's penal code criminalizes harassment via electronic messages and posts.
  • Ohio law prohibits telecommunications harassment. This includes "text or audio statement or an image on an internet website or web page." First-time violations are misdemeanors.
  • Kentucky law considers telephonic and electronic harassment to be a Class B misdemeanor.

Most state laws punish cyberbullying or cyberstalking as misdemeanors. Yet, the line between free speech under the First Amendment and cybercrime can be vague.

Policies Against Cyberbullying

Cyberbullies are directly responsible for causing harassment. Yet, there is also a question of whether online platforms must prevent it.

Many technology companies and other institutions recognize cyberbullying as a problem. It can create a toxic environment, driving away users. A company may also have concerns about its liability for overlooking bullying on its platform.

That's why companies have created policies and moderation tactics to combat harassment. These policies hold both the companies and their users accountable.

Unfortunately, these policies often fall short of their goal to protect consumers. A cyberbully might create a new online or social media account.

Social Networking Sites and Apps Policies

Many social media companies have created anti-bullying policies to help prevent cyberbullying and protect privacy. These policies usually appear in the terms of service that every user must agree to follow.

For example, Meta created policies for each of its major platforms. Facebook does not tolerate bullying or harassment, such as sending many unwanted messages or friend requests. Facebook asks users to report posts containing threats of violence so it can remove them.

Similarly, Instagram states that harassment, abuse, intimidation, bullying, and impersonation are against its terms of use. Users also aren't allowed to post private information or nude photos — whether their own or someone else's.

Online Gaming Chat Policies

Unfortunately, abusive chatter is typical for those who play games online. Spending a few minutes in a gaming lobby can risk exposure to graphic insults, whether by text or voice chat.

Game companies like Sony and Microsoft have anti-abuse policies that ask players to report harassment. Yet, enforcement of these policies can be inconsistent. Automated moderation tools also often fail to catch and mute cyberbully players.

School Policies

School or district policies may offer more direct protection against cyberbullying among students. Cyberbullying is a common violation of schools' codes of conduct.

How to Protect Against Cyberbullying

Fortunately, there are steps to protect yourself or your children from cyberbullying, such as:

  • Choose safe privacy settings. One way to avoid misuse of personal photographs and information is to allow only friends and family members to see and comment on them.
  • Mute or block the cyberbully. Users can block messages and friend requests from cyberbullies and spammers. Similarly, online gamers can mute an abusive player.
  • Report the cyberbully. If the abuse is ongoing or severe, taking screenshots or otherwise documenting it's a good idea. Use the reporting tools available on the platform or website.
  • Change your phone number. If a stalker or bully contacts you, switching numbers with your communications service provider can stop harassing texts and calls.
  • Tell your child to speak up. Parents can help children understand how to detect and report bullying online. Parents may also consider monitoring or limiting their children's social media use.

The warning signs of cyberbullying can be unclear. Parents don't always see what their children see online. Teaching children about internet safety can help them understand what to do if they suffer bullying online.

Get Legal Help to Stop Abuse

If you or your child is the victim of cyberbullying, do not wait and hope for it to pass. Contact your school's authorities, report the abuse, and document it. Contact law enforcement if the abuse is ongoing or involves threats of violence.

You should also consult a local attorney to determine steps to take to end the abuse. Complex cases of cyberstalking and harassment may not be so easy to resolve. A lawyer can guide you through actions like protective orders or even a lawsuit.

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