On a daily basis, people are harassed and are victims of cyberbullying. Depending on how these actions are intended, both may be criminal offenses. State laws sometimes differ from federal laws, and if someone commits cyberbullying across state lines, the ramifications may be determined by both a state and a federal judge.
What Is Harassment in the Eyes of the Law?
Harassment is an action taken by one person that annoys, threatens, or provokes another individual or group of people. If this activity causes someone emotional distress, suffering, or self-harm, the action is criminal harassment, as opposed to the action just bothering another person.
In the workplace, harassment may be discriminatory based on race, gender, or sexual harassment. An example of workplace harassment is failing to repeatedly promote a person of another race or gender who is equally or more qualified for the position. It also may include leaving hateful messages in a place where the intended victim will see it or anything else that makes an employee fear going to work.
Sexual harassment examples include offering someone a promotion in exchange for sex, repeated name-calling, slut-shaming, or anything else that makes the intended target fearful or anxious.
Other types of harassment include stalking and bullying. Where stalking is intended to make the victim fear for their safety, bullying can progress from verbal or emotional abuse to physical assault. In some instances, bullying can be so severe that the victim may take their own life. The harasser can be charged with homicide if it is proved to be true.
While harassment extends far beyond these noted types, they are some of the more common forms of criminal harassment.
Essentially, any action where someone is made to feel fearful or anxious is considered harassment. When patterns of repeated harassment from an employee, classmate, acquaintance, or others are reported, the person committing the offense may have a restraining order placed against them or be charged with a crime.
What Is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying occurs when someone uses the internet to bully another person. While it can happen at any age, teenagers are subjected to cyberbullying more than any other group. In recent surveys of students 18 years old and younger, 70 percent report being victims of cyberbullying one or more times in their lives. The term cyberstalking is typically used when people over the age of 18 are involved. The two words are essentially interchangeable.
LGBTQIA+ teens are more likely to be bullied than their heterosexual peers. Over 58 percent of those who identify with the LGBT community have dealt with hate speech, 35 percent have received online threats, and 12 percent have been victims of cyberbullying.
While it is not surprising that cyberbullying occurs, since teens have significant access to electronics, the number of teens affected by internet harassment is profound. Often, what starts as merely annoying someone, turns into harassment. When threats of physical harm or suggestions to self-harm are made, harassment becomes cyberbullying.
How Do You Prove That You are Being Harassed?
In order to be charged with a crime, the victims of harassment and cyberbullying need to show that specific intent was made by the harasser to hurt them.
For example, if the harasser intended to say something that was designed to intimidate the victim or provoke a fight, there is a case to be made for harassment. This is different than actions that cause unintentional pain or suffering.
Jane messages Michelle and tells her that she really shouldn’t wear her hair in a ponytail because it makes her look moody and cranky. Michelle is deeply offended by Jane’s message and cries herself to sleep. Jane did not intend to be mean. This is not harassment.
However, if Jane messaged Michelle and said that if she wore her hair in a ponytail again, she would be beaten up after school, this would be considered cyberbullying.
Frank said to John that the new kid smells funny. Every day, Frank and John walk through the halls at school, and when they pass the new kid, they hold their noses and make comments about something smelling bad. This is an example of harassment.
A week later, Frank says to John that they should show the new kid how to bathe. They follow him to the bathroom one afternoon, beat him up, and stick his head in the toilet. Their action has now progressed from harassment to assault. Frank and John could be charged with a criminal offense.
Megan and Kayla love to tease the other girls at school. There is hardly anyone who has not been bothered by the duo at one point throughout high school. Recently they started to pick on Amy. Each night they text her that she is ugly. They send her pictures of people with paper bags over their heads and suggest she does the same. On social media, they comment on her photographs that she ruined a good view with her face. They have even gone as far as private messaging Amy that the world would be a better-looking place without her in it and that she should do everyone a favor and kill herself.
After weeks of being tormented by Megan and Kayla, Amy thinks that everyone is against her and that life is not worth living. She commits suicide that weekend. When the family goes through Amy’s phone and computer, they find the messages from Megan and Kayla. They show the police and a case is built against the two girls. Megan and Kayla are considered adults and are brought up on felony charges and face the next 25 years in prison.
What If I Don’t Know the Person Who’s Cyberbullying Me?
When you are online, you don’t always know the people that you play games with, friend you on social media, or follow you. However, it is best practice not to accept friend requests from strangers or allow people to follow you that you have never met.
Cyberbullying among peers is significantly high; however, there are people on the internet whose sole mission is to cause turmoil. These people are often referred to as “trolls.”
Trolls like to make negative comments on posts and pictures just to get a rise out of others. They typically have no borders or filters and will continue to make malicious comments; the more you complain about their words, the more power you give them. Since their goal is to get under your skin, the more acknowledgment you give them that they are irritating you, the worse the offenders will act.
The best way to combat a troll is to block or remove them from your social media account. If they cannot reach you, they cannot bother you.
While most internet trolls only have the intention of being a pest, some people take it to another level. If you are ever threatened or if it is suggested that you are being watched or followed, the authorities should be contacted. It is never okay to be threatened or stalked.
The police utilize forensic technology to find the location of those who threaten your safety on the internet. By tracing the source of the threats, officers can usually find the IP address of the suspected person and track their location. When threats are made across state lines, federal jurisdiction is enacted. The punishments, if a conviction is made, are typically more severe than those who make threats and are located in the same state as their victim. The exact threats and methodology are also taken into consideration. While not all harassers online are caught, many can be located and stopped.
Help for Victims of Cyberbullying
There are numerous resources available to victims of cyberbullying. While most people do not take measures to address the harassment, parents and educators can help victims get the help they need to stop the bullying.
There are also websites were people who are victims of cyberbullying can go to get resources and information on how to stop their harassers. Websites such as stopbullying.gov also offer quick ways to get help if you or someone you know is being bullied. Every state in the country has laws addressing bully and cyberbullying. Also, most state laws, policies, and regulations require schools and school districts to implement no-bullying policies and procedures to investigate and respond to bullying when it occurs.
When Is Cyberbullying Not Considered Free Speech?
The first amendment of the United States Constitution allows for free speech among all people. However, when words are used to harm or hurt someone, the amendment is no longer applicable in the harasser’s defense.
Numerous laws have been enacted to protect the victims of harassment and cyberbullying. When harmful words are spoken or written and criminal conduct is found, freedom of speech can no longer be used as a defense mechanism. While unintended consequences of harassment may be found, cyberbullying is rarely deemed to be harmless or unintentional.
Famous Cyberbullying Cases
Many cases of cyberbullying since the internet became available in the late 1980s, and social media became so popular in the 2000s. While some victims are mildly bullied, others may be harassed so harshly that they take their own life to avoid further bullying.
In 2016 an 18-year-old girl from Texas City, Texas, just outside of Houston, killed herself as a result of cyberbullying. Brandy Vela was victimized repeatedly by strangers who would set up dating profiles using her picture and give out her phone number for those looking to have sex with her. They also made fake Facebook profiles of Brandy offering free sex to anyone who wanted it.
Despite the family’s efforts to change their daughter’s phone number and fill multiple police reports, Brandy couldn’t combat the mental toll that she was put through at the hands of bullies.
School was considered a “safe zone” for Brandy, and the administration encouraged her to change her phone number when she brought the issue to their attention a couple of weeks before her suicide. Despite a police investigation, the app used to send the messages to Brandy was untraceable to the perpetrator.
A year later, two people were arrested and convicted in connection with Brandy’s death, Andres and his girlfriend, Karinthya. Andres had dated Brandy before his relationship with Karinthya. While the girlfriend created the alias accounts and did all of the cyberbullying, Andres provided private and intimate poses of Brandy to his girlfriend with the intent of posting them on the internet.
Kenneth Weishuhn, of Paulina, Iowa, was 14 when he committed suicide due to harassment and cyberbullying. He had recently told his closest friends that he was gay. While he thought he was safe, some of his classmates decided it would be fun to create a Facebook hate group targeting Kenneth. His former friends started to gang up against him, as did his sister’s friends.
Kenneth started receiving death threats at the height of the cyberbullying. He hanged himself in the family’s garage to escape the incessant harassment.
Canadian teen Amanda Todd was 15 when an anonymous person on Facebook convinced her to take her top off on camera in a blackmailing scheme. A year later, the pictures of her resurfaced and were shared with all of her classmates. In an effort to escape the torment, Amanda transferred to other schools, but the photos kept reappearing on Facebook. They were posted in fake accounts made by the same person who originally blackmailed her.
Amanda was unable to escape the harassment and cyberbullying; her reputation seemingly tarnished. With a history of mental illness, she turned to drugs, alcohol, and sex. Then, Amanda started cutting herself. At one point, she drank bleach in an effort to kill herself.
Before she died, Amanda posted a nine-minute long video on YouTube. Using flashcards, she told viewers about her experience of being blackmailed into posing topless in front of a webcam. She also shared how she was bullied and physically assaulted by a group of 15 people. Amanda hanged herself at her home in October 2012.
Even after Amanda died, the cyberbullying did not stop. She was mocked online for committing suicide.
In 2014, Aydin, a native of the Netherlands, became the prime suspect behind Amanda’s cyberbullying. Upon investigation, he was found to have installed spyware on his computers, as well as had numerous images of child pornography and thousands of bookmarked names of his social networking victims.
Coban was charged with, among other things:
- Internet luring
- Criminal harassment
- Possession of child pornography
- Distribution of child pornography
While the Dutch authorities dropped some of the child pornography charges in 2015, he faced 72 charges of sexual assault and extortion involving dozens of victims. Coban was also charged with five separate Canadian charges, related to Amanda. He faced nearly 11 years of a Dutch sentence and potentially more by Canada once extradition could take place. At the end of 2019, the paperwork was being processed by Canadian courts.
How Is the United States Combating Cyberbullying?
In the US, all states have laws to combat bullying and cyberbullying. Over 92 percent of children and teens go online daily, and 71 percent use more than one type of social media. This leaves the nation’s youth at an increased risk of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying occurs on all social media platforms. Between Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, a picture or video can go viral on all apps in a matter of hours.
In 2010, when Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his Rutgers University roommate live-streamed him having sexual relations with another man, a federal cyberbullying law was finally passed.
Canada started drafting a law against cyberbullying just weeks after Amanda Todd committed suicide.
While laws can put those responsible for committing cyberbullying behind bars, stopping the activity before another person loses their life is the goal. Education is the best way to combat the act. Parents need to have open communication with their children and teach them about the risks of technology and online predators.
Here are some tips to protect your children about cyberbullying:
Do Not Open Messages from Strangers
Just because you don’t know someone does not mean that they cannot cyberbully you. It is often easier to bully others online because they are posting from a fake or anonymous account. Be sure to teach your children never to open messages, accept a friend request, or allow a follower of someone they do not know. It is not uncommon for children to compete for “numbers.” Everyone wants to have the most followers on the web. However, the more people they give access to your personal information and photos, the more compromised their privacy becomes. Once the door is opened, cyberbullying can easily occur.
Think Before You Post Online
When people are emotional, they tend to act before they think. People can be mean and say things that are quite offensive before they sit back and think about what they are actually saying. When they are behind a keyboard, it is easier to say things randomly than to say the same words face-to-face.
Do Not Share Inappropriate Photos with Anyone
One of the best ways to protect your children from the ramifications of cyberbullying is the teach them never to send inappropriate or sexual pictures, texts, or videos with anyone. Even if you are in a committed relationship, if you should ever separate or someone finds them, you can fall victim to cyberbullying. Also, teach them that just because someone said they deleted pictures does not mean that they are telling the truth. It is best never to send sexualized photos than to find them one day on the internet.
Make People Aware of Cyberbullying
Bringing awareness about cyberbullying to the forefront is a crucial way of protecting your children. The more you talk about it, the less taboo the topic will be; if your children have questions or are being bullied, they should know with whom they can speak.
Skrba, A. (2020, May 2). List of Cyberbullying Statistics, Facts, and Trends 2020 (with Graphs). FirstSiteGuide. https://firstsiteguide.com/cyberbullying-stats/
Public Affairs. (2019, December 4). Laws, Policies & Regulations. StopBullying. https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/laws
Johansen, K. (2020, May 9). Is Sexual Harassment a Crime? Examples and Famous Cases. Felonies. https://felonies.org/is-sexual-harassment-a-crime-examples-and-famous-cases/