If you think back to your public-school days, then you can probably remember at least one school bully that frequently tormented other children. This age-old behavior has continued and possibly worsened due to the increase in technological advancements like the internet and mobile phones. Cyberbullying through social media or text message has become a new trend, and the effects are devastating. Cyberbullying-related suicides have been increasing nationwide. Laws against such reckless internet bullying behavior are still evolving in most states, but many victims have successfully attempted to seek compensation in civil court against their offenders.
What is Cyberbullying?
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as the intentional, willful act of inflicting harm on another person by utilizing technology like cell phones, computer or other electronic devices. In addition, the actions must reflect a pattern of repeated behavior. An isolated incident wouldn’t be considered cyberbullying, but ongoing and repetitive acts that cause harm to the victim fall under the definition of bullying. The nature of social media and the internet make it easier for bullies to cause repeated harm with a singular action. For instance, a cyberbully may post an embarrassing, compromising image of another only once. The isolated incident alone wouldn’t constitute cyberbullying, but the singular action can cause repeated and ongoing harm when other individuals repeatedly view, comment and share the original post.
Stopbullying.gov lists the most common places where cyberbullying is likely to occur. Social media, instant messages, text messages, and emails are the most frequent forums for this type of abuse. Technological advancements have made it possible for communication to occur 24 hours a day instantaneously, so some victims have trouble finding relief from persistent cyberbullying. Additionally, digital technology makes cyberbullying incidents a permanent and often public record of the abuse. It can be permanently damaging to one’s online reputation, and sometimes an online reputation can affect real-life opportunities as well.
Cyberbullying is increasingly common among adolescents and teenagers. Statistics from Bullyingstatistics.org indicate that at least one in four teens has reported being bullied through the internet or their cell phone. Shockingly, over half of teens have admitted to engaging in cyberbullying themselves. Typically, younger adults won’t inform their parents or teachers about cyberbullying incidents. Statistics gathered from the Hartford County Examiner reveal that fewer than one in five cyberbullying incidents are ever reported to law enforcement.
Effects of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying causes direct psychological, emotional and physical stress for victims. This type of abuse is known to increase a victim’s risk of developing anxiety or depression-like symptoms. Student’s grades may suffer, and they may even complain of physical ailments that don’t stem from any medical condition. Increased feelings of sadness can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. The Cyberbullying Research Center explains how 20 percent of victims say cyberbullying led them to have suicidal thoughts. Victims of cyberbullying may feel like there is no real escape from the abuse because the internet and technology are so ubiquitous in our modern-day lives. The mainstream media has reported on several high-profile and unforgettable cyberbullying cases that have resulted in suicide. Ryan Halligan, a victim of cyberbullying, took his life in 2003 after years of harassment through AOL messenger. His father, John Halligan, believes that bullies have weaponized technology to carry out more effective bullying campaigns in modern times. Cyberbullying can also indirectly cause financial losses when victims are forced to get new phones, purchase new computers or create new online accounts.
Is Cyberbullying Against the Law?
While federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability or religion, there are no specific federal laws regarding cyberbullying. If bullying and discrimination overlap, then the school is required to resolve the harassment. Otherwise, there are no federal laws specific to cyberbullying. All states have some form of law regarding bullying, and nearly all of the states specifically include electronic harassment. Only about 18 of these states punish cyberbullies with criminal sanctions, and the penalties for offenses vary. Schools are often held accountable for these types of incidents. When cyberbullying occurs, the school is required to conduct a full investigation and resolve the situation.
Society has grown and changed in many ways because of the widespread availability of the internet and hand-held connected devices. Laws have continued to develop to include criminal or financial sanctions for people’s use of cell phones, the internet and other technology to commit crimes on the world wide web. In 2011, New Jersey passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Acts that set guidelines for schools dealing with cyberbullying. Most of the time, the bully is not subject to criminal sanctions. In extreme cases, the police may pursue cyber-harassment charges which is a fourth-degree crime in New Jersey. This serious crime can result in 18 months in jail and up to a 10,000 fine for minors. It’s crucial that parents hire an experienced attorney when their juvenile is charged with this serious offense.
Past Lawsuits Involving Cyberbullying
Some cyberbullying victims have pursued lawsuits against their bullies. To file a personal injury lawsuit, a cyberbully victim will need to prove that the defendant owed a duty to them, the defendant acted recklessly, the breach caused injury and the injury caused damages. Victims may also pursue lawsuits alleging libel, harassment, defamation or emotional distress. Depending on the circumstances, parents may be held accountable for a child’s cyberbullying. One case that reached the Georgia Court of Appeals held parents liable for their child’s fake Facebook account because they didn’t make him delete it when they became aware of it. Ultimately, parents can be held accountable when they haven’t efficiently supervised their child or minimized the damage they caused upon discovering the behavior. In some situations, a child’s school may be held liable when they failed to take steps to resolve a known cyberbullying issue. Similar cyberbullying lawsuits have been filed in Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and other states.
The prevalence of cyberbullying amongst younger adolescents is startling, and statistics clearly indicate the very real dangers victim’s face due to this societal issue. Most states rely on schools to manage cyberbullying, so criminal sanctions are not always pursed for this serious crime. Some victims have taken out lawsuits against their abusers in an attempt to bring attention to the tragic consequences of this reckless childhood behavior. It’s clear that more needs to be done to address this problem among our school-aged children.