Understanding the Legal Ramifications of Cyberbullying

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Most kids in the United States have either witnessed cyberbullying or have been a part of it in some way, either as a victim or a perpetrator. In fact, research suggests that half of all students have been on the receiving end of hurtful comments or posts online. What's more, 10 to 20 percent of them experience cyberbullying regularly.

Meanwhile, about 70 percent of students report frequently seeing online bullying. But, can anything be done besides reporting the offender to the online platform? Are there any legal ramifications for bullying people online? Before addressing those questions, it helps to have a clear understanding of what cyberbullying is.

A Closer Look at Cyberbullying

In simple terms, cyberbullying involves inflicting emotional pain and humiliation upon another person, or group of people, using technology. This means kids, and some adults too, may send cruel or harassing text messages, post embarrassing information or rumors to social media, or make vile comments in an online forum.

Cyberbullies use technology to threaten, harass, demean, embarrass, humiliate, and target other people.

One of the things that makes cyberbullying so dangerous is that, unlike traditional bullying, the harassment is ongoing, even after the school day or the work day has ended. Technology allows bullies to follow their targets everywhere, even while in the safety and security of their own homes. There is no escape. Anytime a victim has access to technology, they can be cyberbullied.

What's more, social media creates easy opportunities for harassment. For this reason, many young people witness online cruelty every single day. In fact, it is becoming a daily part of their lives and the consequences are significant. Yet, because it is happening all around them, young people are becoming immune to the significance of the issue and have started to accept it as a part of life. When this happens, it becomes even more difficult for the culture of cruelty to change and cyberbullying remains a constant.

Additionally, because cyberbullies cannot see the impact the words are having on another person, they often are much crueler online than they ever would be in person. For instance, the lack of immediate reactions or facial cues allows cyberbullies to become emotionally detached from what they are doing.

In fact, some people who harass others online would never consider themselves cyberbullies. But they are. Anytime, a person harasses another person online they are cyberbullying them. Here are some examples of cyberbullying:

  • Harassing someone online by shaming, embarrassing, demeaning, or humiliating them
  • Impersonating someone online
  • Making threats to physically harm another person
  • Threatening to kill someone
  • Posting or texting something obscene
  • Engaging in sexting either by sending photos or videos or by requesting them
  • Extorting someone sexually (sometimes called sextortion)
  • Stalking someone digitally
  • Posting, watching or requesting child pornography
  • Committing hate crimes based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion
  • Taking and/or posting a photo of someone when they expect privacy (like locker rooms and bathrooms)

Overall, cyberbullying often has significant consequences because it is so cruel and seems to be never-ending. For this reason, educators, community leaders and lawmakers are working hard to address this type of bullying.

Cyberbullying and the Law

So, is cyberbullying a crime? The short answer is yes. There can be legal consequences for cyberbullying.

Take, for instance, sexting. In this situation, people who send or receive sexts can be charged with distributing child pornography. What's more, if the person in the photograph took the photo themselves and then distributed it, they can be charged with distributing child pornography if they are a minor. Even though they took the photo willingly and sent it to someone else willingly, many states consider this disseminating child pornography. For this reason, it is extremely important that teens understand the consequences of sexting. They can find themselves in a lot of legal trouble if they do not understand the law.

But cyberbullying laws are not limited to sexting. Although there is no federal law that specifically addresses cyberbullying, if someone is cyberbullied because of race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability or religion, it may overlap with discriminatory harassment and federal civil rights laws.

In fact, many cyberbullying cases wind up getting prosecuted as harassment. Consequently, some of the cases will end up in civil court while others might warrant criminal charges and prosecution for hate crimes, impersonation, harassment and violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

In addition to these larger laws, individual states have their own laws and regulations regarding cyberbullying that vary state by state. The government website, StopBullying.gov, provides a state-by-state map that highlights the specific policies.

A School's Responsibility

If the harassment or cyberbullying that a person experiences are addressed under discriminatory harassment and federal civil rights laws such as Title IX and Section 504, federally funded school districts are required to address the incident as well. So, there may be additional disciplinary procedures for kids that cyberbully, even when the cyberbullying occurs off school grounds.

School districts are required to submit a vast array of information about bullying to the U.S. Department of Education, which then includes this data in its Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) survey that is conducted every year.

Overall, they collect data on allegations of harassment or bullying especially as it relates to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion. It also records data on students who are disciplined for these actions as well.

Cyberbullying Laws at the State Level

Because the federal government has not passed a national piece of cyberbullying or bullying prevention legislation, each state is responsible for writing and enacting its own.

All fifty states have bullying legislation in place. But, this was not always the case. Montana was the last state to pass bullying legislation, doing so in April 2015. What's more, Montana is the only state that does not require schools to have a formal school policy on bullying.

In the past, a school district's hands were tied when it came to bullying. But now federal case law allows schools to discipline students for off-campus behavior that results in a significant disruption of the school's academic environment. Consequently, many states have made amendments to their laws allowing schools greater opportunities for involvement in putting an end to cyberbullying.

State laws vary significantly, as do the requirements for school districts.

For instance, some states have established laws, policies, and regulations while others have developed model policies for school districts. Meanwhile, not many states have established consequences for bullying behavior and only a few classify bullying as a criminal offense. Additionally, some states address bullying, cyberbullying and harassment in a single law while others use multiple laws. And, in some states bullying appears in the criminal code of the state and applies to juveniles.

Consequently, cyberbullying laws vary significantly, with some states having much more stringent requirements than others. For instance, New York's Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) states that school districts must have the following policies and procedures in place. For instance, they must:

  • Create and implement policies and procedures for harassment, bullying and cyberbullying
  • Provide reporting procedures and mechanisms for all types of bullying and harassment
  • Conduct employee training regarding bullying, cyberbullying and harassment
  • Hire a DASA coordinator to work with staff, students, and parents to address any issues.

Meanwhile, Ohio's cyberbullying legislation, called the Jessica Logan Act, is also extensive. Named after Jessica Logan, the law was introduced after Logan was cyberbullied, harassed and intimidated by her peers when a nude picture of her was circulated at her high school. Logan committed suicide shortly after the photo was distributed at her school.

In response, Ohio's law requires districts to expand their existing anti-bullying policies to cover incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying that occurs both online and on school buses. It also specifies that a district's anti-bullying policies must indicate that students could be suspended for engaging in bullying or cyberbullying. The law also requires schools to offer anonymous reporting mechanisms, as well as strategies for protecting the person who reported the incident from retaliation.

Finally, Ohio requires its districts to develop age-appropriate ways to educate students about their anti-bullying policies and the consequences for violating the policies. They also are required to train all their teachers, administrators and staff on anti-bullying policies as well as submit written summaries of all reported incidents and post them on its website for the public to read.

To make comparisons among these state laws easier, the U.S. Department of Education developed a framework of the common components that are found in state laws, policies, and regulations. They used this framework to understand how schools were taking action to prevent and respond to bullying incidents. Some common components include policy statements, safeguards, staff training, and consequences.

Additional information about the New York and Ohio policies, as well as other state cyberbullying laws is available at StopBullying.gov.

The Penalties for Cyberbullying

Because the laws vary significantly from state to state, the penalties for cyberbullying are also wide-ranging. Depending on the state and its cyberbullying laws, the penalties for cyberbullying could range anywhere from civil penalties like being suspended or expelled from school to jail time for some felonies.

For instance, in Florida cyberbullying laws direct schools to discipline the students by suspending them or expelling them. Meanwhile, in Missouri, cyberbullies who make violent threats through social media or other electronic means may be charged for a criminal offense.

Additionally, there are naturally occurring consequences for cyberbullying. For instance, cyberbullies may find themselves in court, lose their job, or even get arrested. What's more, kids and adults need to realize that what is posted online stays online. Even if something is deleted, people may have taken a screenshot of it. As a result, just because kids delete something does not mean that it goes away.

It is also not uncommon for potential employers and college admission officers to search social media platforms. And for many teens, what they have learned is what might have been funny in the moment quickly becomes tomorrow's embarrassment. What's more, the courts have already ruled that there is no such thing as privacy online.

The Future of Cyberbullying Laws

There have been a number of high profile cyberbullying cases in the news where offenders have faced criminal charges. Perhaps the most significant of these cases involves a 17-year-old Massachusetts' teen that was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting her 18-year-old boyfriend, urging him to continue along his plan to commit suicide.

As he was pumping carbon monoxide into his car in a store parking lot, he got out when he started to feel ill. Instead of supporting his decision, the 17-year-old girlfriend texted him telling him he needed to get back in the truck and follow through with his plan. She also did not call the police or his family, and made no efforts to stop him. Consequently, a Massachusetts judge found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

As schools, communities, and law enforcement become more adept at identifying cyberbullying, cases like this one may increase. In the meantime, advocates are pushing for more involvement from the federal government. They believe that schools need clear guidelines on how to reduce cyberbullying while promoting respect and kindness.

A Word From Verywell

Cyberbullying is a serious issue that is continuing to grow. For this reason, parents need to be diligent about instilling digital literacy and etiquette. Meanwhile, kids need to realize that if they are angry or feeling emotional that they should not post about it. Likewise, venting should be done offline to a trusted friend or in a private journal. Regardless of privacy settings, kids should be very careful about what they post online.

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