Cyberbullying involves inflicting emotional pain and humiliation upon another person, or group of people, using technology. Kids and adults can send cruel or harassing text messages, post embarrassing information or rumors on social media, or make vile comments in an online forum.
Cyberbullying is dangerous because, unlike traditional bullying, harassment is ongoing. Technology allows bullies to follow their targets everywhere. There is no escape. Anytime a victim has access to technology, they can be cyberbullied.
Social media breeds easy opportunities for harassment. It is now becoming a part of daily their lives. Yet, young people are becoming desensitized to it. When this happens, it becomes even more difficult for the culture of cruelty to change, and cyberbullying remains constant.
Additionally, because cyberbullies cannot see or feel the impact of their words or images, they often are much crueler online because they have an empathetic barrier in place, a veil of sorts. For instance, they can be emotionally detached from what they are doing because they can’t see facial cues or body language from reactions.
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)
Cyberbullying and the Law
There are some legal consequences for cyberbullying.
For example, a person who sends 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.
Colorado anti-bullying laws and regulations include the following definition of bullying:
“Bullying” means any written or oral expression, or physical or electronic act or gesture, or a pattern thereof, that is intended to coerce, intimidate, or cause any physical, mental, or emotional harm to any student. Bullying is prohibited against any student for any reason, including but not limited to any such behavior that is directed toward a student on the basis of the student’s academic performance or against whom federal and state laws prohibit discrimination upon any of the bases described in section 22-32-109 (1)(11)(I)(A). This definition is not intended to infringe upon any right guaranteed to any person by the first amendment to the United States constitution or to prevent the expression of any religious, political, or philosophical views. Colo. Rev. Stat. §22-32 109.1 (2020).
Cyberbullying is typically addressed through harassment laws. For example, someone can be prosecuted for cyberbullying by violating harassment laws. Typically, a misdemeanor.
However, there has been a significant change in Colorado Revised Statutes §18-9-111(1)(e), Criminal Code, Article 9 – Offenses Against Public Peace, Order, and Decency, Harassment – Kiana Arellano’s law.
This statute states “(1) A person commits harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she: (e) Directly or indirectly initiates communication with a person or directs language toward another person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, telephone network, data network, text message, instant message, computer, computer network, computer system, or other interactive electronic medium in a manner intended to harass or threaten bodily injury or property damage, or makes any comment, request, suggestion, or proposal by telephone, computer, computer network, computer system, or other interactive electronic medium that is obscene; or (f) Makes a telephone call or causes a telephone to ring repeatedly, whether or not a conversation ensues, with no purpose of legitimate conversation; or (g) Makes repeated communications at inconvenient hours that invade the privacy of another and interfere in the use and enjoyment of another’s home or private residence or other private property; or (h) Repeatedly insults, taunts, challenges, or makes communications in offensively coarse language to, another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response.”
On March 28, 2022, the Colorado Supreme Court in People v. Moreno, held that the phrase “intended to harass” was unconstitutional for being overbroad and impermissibly restricting to protected speech.
In this case, an ex-husband was emailing his ex-wife disparaging and vulgar comments and posting these comments on Facebook. The Court decided to strike “intend to harass” because the words “harass” and “intended to harass” are so broad that they cover protected speech, and in the digital age blocking or deleting with a swipe of the finger in terms of unwanted electronic communications is a small price to pay for the freedom of speech.
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. Many cyberbullying cases get prosecuted as harassment. Some of the cases end up in civil court. Others might warrant criminal charges and prosecution for hate crimes, impersonation, harassment, and violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
What Can I Do If I Was a Victim of Cyberbullying?
- Notify police or school security,
- Talk with a trusted adult or teacher,
- Inform your parents/guardians, and
- Contact a lawyer if other avenues have not been successful.
The Future of Cyberbullying and the Law
There have been a number of high-profile cyberbullying cases in the news where offenders have faced criminal charges.
One of the most significant of these cases involves a 17-year-old Massachusetts teen who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for texting her 18-year-old boyfriend, urging him to continue along with his plan to commit suicide (now a series on Hulu). 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.
In Colorado, Schools have statutes that they must abide by. For example, § 22-93 106. School bullying prevention and education–availability of best practices and other resources: (1) On or before November 1, 2011, the department shall create a page on its public website at which the department shall continuously make publicly available evidence-based best practices and other resources for educators and other professionals engaged in bullying prevention and education. (2) The department shall solicit evidence-based best practices and other resources from the school safety resource center created in section 24-33.5-1803, C.R.S.; from school districts; from the state charter school institute established in section 22 30.5-503; and from other state and federal agencies that are concerned with school bullying prevention and education. The department shall review materials that it receives and, as may be appropriate, make such materials available to the public on the website described in subsection (1) of this section.
As schools, communities, and law enforcement become more proficient at identifying cyberbullying, cases may increase. Parents are often pushed to inform and educate as well. They may need to be more diligent about digital literacy and etiquette. Meanwhile, kids need to realize that if they are angry or feeling emotional, that posting about it will not lead to good things. Likewise, venting should be done to a trusted friend or in a private journal.