Bullying is hardly a new problem. However, it has moved from the school grounds, the bus, and neighborhood parks to social media sites and text messages. Cyberbullying is using the internet or mobile technology to harass, intimidate, or cause harm to another. Nearly all states have bullying laws in place to address traditional bullying. A growing number have online bullying or electronic harassment provisions.
Why Is Cyberbullying Such a Serious Problem?
Cyberbullying can be as traumatizing as — if not more traumatizing than — traditional forms of bullying.
- It is persistent. Cyberbullying can occur at any hour of the day or night.
- It is ever-present. The bullying happens through the victim's electronics. Typical outlets include group chats, social media sites, and gaming communities.
- It is permanent. "The internet is forever," as the saying goes. Unflattering images and defamatory lies can influence every area of a young person's life.
- It is less visible to adults. School officials and parents might see bruises if the bully causes physical harm to the child. They might never see what happens on a cellphone or in an internet community.
Cyberbullying attacks on a young person's character and self-esteem become a source of emotional distress. They can cause embarrassment, shame, anxiety, and depression. Cyberbullying has played a role in many teen suicides.
For example, a high school student takes an unflattering picture of a classmate. They send it to all of their friends (via mobile phone) with hurtful comments. Then dozens of classmates target the student. Instead of dealing with one bully, the victim now faces online harassment from a group of people. The photo goes viral. It attracts attention from strangers, some of whom join in the teasing. This creates a terrible situation for a young person who is excruciatingly attuned to peer pressure. The results can be tragic.
In 2017, the parents of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman filed a lawsuit against their daughter's school district for gross negligence. The parents repeatedly told school officials about the bullying happening via texts, Snapchat, and Instagram. They also considered suing the parents of the cyberbullying peers.
Common Cyberbullying Tactics
According to StopBullying.gov, cyberbullying can take many forms. These include:
- Posting a mean or unflattering picture or video of a classmate
- Posting rumors (or starting rumors) on a social media platform
- Threatening people via text message
- "Outing" someone's sexual orientation or gender identity, i.e., disclosing that information to others without the person's consent
- Sending messages telling someone to kill themself
- Pretending to be someone else online in order to become online "friends" and then expose someone
Is Cyberbullying a Crime?
Until the mid-2000s, there were no specific cyberbullying laws. However, legislators have not been blind to the increasing number of high-publicized incidents of suicide and school violence. Some states leave law enforcement in the hands of school officials. Cases of cyberbullying are often treated as a civil rather than a criminal law matter.
Some criminal prosecutors have been able to use existing criminal harassment laws to prosecute cyberbullies in public schools. More than half of U.S. states now include "cyberbullying" in their broader bullying or harassment laws. Most states also include a prohibition on "electronic harassment."
The trend is to hold offenders accountable for bullying behavior both on and off campus. Only about a dozen states have school sanctions for cyberbullying actions committed off campus. Depending on the state, victims may be able to seek remedies in civil courts or try to convince criminal prosecutors to take the behavior seriously enough to consider criminal charges.
In the ever-evolving landscape of cyberbullying legislation, the issue makes for a difficult balancing act. Protecting individuals from harm may be at odds with safeguarding free speech rights under federal law. Many states have enacted laws addressing cyberbullying. Still, curbing harmful online behavior without infringing on free speech remains a topic of much debate and legal scrutiny.
Examples of State Cyberbullying Laws
Most states have school sanctions for cyberbullying or cyberstalking in general. Below is a sampling of state laws addressing cyberbullying:
- California: Bullying in an educational facility includes communications by electronic means. The Safe Place to Learn Act and other sections establish a student's "right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe, secure, and peaceful." Using an electronic device to cause someone to fear for their life (an extreme form of bullying) can be charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
- Florida: The state's "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" prohibits bullying of any K-12 student or staff member. It explicitly references cyberbullying, or "bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication." The law does not include criminal sanctions. It directs school districts to draft policies and to report instances of bullying. Schools can suspend or expel students found guilty of bullying. Unfortunately, enforcement varies from district to district. Some schools have used cyberbullying rules to punish students who report sexual assault.
- Missouri: Cyberbullying is defined by Missouri statute as including but not limited to "a message, text, sound, or image by means of an electronic device." School employees must report instances of bullying. An individual who uses social media to bully another person with violent threats may be charged with harassment. Offenses are typically classified as misdemeanors. They can escalate to felonies if the actions are carried out with the intent to cause emotional distress and if these actions indeed result in the victim experiencing emotional distress. Penalties also increase if the defendant has a prior harassment conviction.
What Are the Penalties for Cyberbullying Cases?
The main difference among state cyberbullying laws is whether sanctions are administrative or criminal. Florida requires school policies but does not define criminal charges. Missouri can charge a cyberbullying offender in criminal court, but only for violent threats.
So, depending on the state laws, the penalties for cyberbullying can range from school suspension or expulsions to jail time.
While parents whose children have been bullied want a stricter approach to bullying, civil rights organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — criticize using the criminal justice system to penalize children. They tend to advocate for the school administration to handle student behavior problems.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers tips on bullying prevention and anti-bullying policies at its StopBullying.gov website.
Learn More About Cyberbullying Laws From an Attorney
Cyberbullying is a rapidly evolving area of law, and the laws vary from state to state. If you or someone close to you is charged with cyberbullying, get legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. They can explain the current state of cyberbullying and harassment laws in your state.