Internet Law

Bullying on the Cyber Playground

Bullying is nothing new. For generations, children everywhere have faced playground taunts and teasing. In recent years though, the Internet has taken bullying to a whole new level. With the click of the mouse, anonymous threats and harassment are instantly sent world-wide.

What Is Cyberbullying?

This new form of childhood torment is called "cyberbullying." Online harassment of adults happens too, but that's generally known as cyber-harassment or cyberstalking.

Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying doesn't stop at the front door. It comes into our homes in e-mail messages, chat rooms, Web pages and phone text messages. It takes many forms, including:

  • Sending direct messages that are mean, vulgar or threatening
  • Posting a person's private or sensitive information online
  • Impersonating the victim online to make them look bad
  • Posting humiliating or degrading photos of the victim online
  • Attacking the victim with spam or thousands of text messages
  • Stealing passwords or breaking into the victim's online account

Megan Meier Cyberbullying Tragedy

Cyberbullying is particularly ugly when it involves an adult bullying a child. Take the case of Megan Meier. The 13-year-old Missouri girl was driven to suicide by an online hoax.

Megan's adult neighbor, Lori Drew, helped impersonate a teen age boy on the social networking site MySpace. The fake boy drew Megan into an online relationship, which ended with a fight and the boy telling Megan the world would be better off without her. A short time later, Megan hung herself.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Public outrage called for the criminal prosecution of Drew for her involvement in Megan's death. At the time, no Missouri criminal law applied. So Drew was prosecuted under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a computer theft law, for criminally accessing a computer.

On August 31, a federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and dismissed the charges. The law was too broadly written. It put anyone who violated a Web site's service agreement at risk of being charged with a crime.

Making Cyberbullying Criminal

Following Megan's death, Missouri passed a law that made it a felony for an adult to harass a child through electronic communication. A person convicted under the law faces up to four years in prison.

Last month, Elizabeth Thrasher was the first person to be charged under the new law. Thrasher's accused of posting a 17-year-old's photo and personal information in a Craigslist online ad that suggested the teen was seeking a sexual encounter.

How to Deal with Cyberbullying

The US Dept. of Health and Human Services offers these tips for dealing with a cyberbully:

  • Support your child. Listen and empathize with your child
  • Don't respond to the bully. Encourage your child not to respond or retaliate
  • Save it. Don't erase the messages and images. You might need them for evidence
  • Report it. Report bad language or other violations of the "Terms and Conditions" of e-mail services and Web sites to the service providers
  • Identify the cyberbully. Ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to track down the cyberbully. If you think the harassment might be criminal, ask the police to help
  • Block it. You may be able to block the cyberbully's e-mail or cell phone harassment by contacting your service provider
  • Contact your school. The school must intervene if the harassment comes through the district's Internet system. Administrators will want to know about the situation even if it occurs outside of the school
  • Consider telling the bully's parents. Contact the bully's parents if you think they might help. Communicate in writing and show them proof of the cyberbullying
  • Consider contacting an attorney. In serious cases, victims may be able to sue the cyberbully or the bully's parents for the infliction of emotional distress or other personal injuries
  • Contact the police. If you aren't sure whether the cyberbullying is a crime in your situation, call your local police and they can advise you. Call the police if it involves:
    • Threats of violence
    • Extortion
    • Obscene or repeated harassing phone calls or text messages
    • Stalking or hate crimes
    • Child pornography

    From name calling to death threats, cyberbullying is very upsetting for children and parents. Try to keep your emotions in check so you can carefully determine the best way to help your child.

    Questions for Your Attorney

    • Could a teenager be charged as an adult under an anti-harassment law, such as Missouri's?
    • Which is more effective - approaching the parents of a harassing child, or having an attorney write a letter to the parents?
    • Is it an offense¬†for a child or student who receives harassing e-mail messages or postings to respond in kind, as in if someone's shoved, there are some who will shove back?
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