Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment
Teenage bullying is not new, and can now be accomplished using cell phones and social media. Many states have passed specific laws aimed at teens who bully or harass other teens online.
High schoolers texting photos of a half-dressed, drunken classmate, jealous teens ganging up on the new girl on Facebook—are these just samples of the age-old adolescent drama playing out on a new stage? Or, are they examples of a light-speed escalation of bullying? State legislatures are grappling with these questions.
This article focuses on cyberbullying and harassment by and against teens. For general information about criminal harassment and stalking, see our article, Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes. And for state-specific information on cyberbullying law, see our section on Bullying and Cyberbullying.
In 2010, Tyler Clementi, 18 years old, killed himself after his college roommate secretly Skyped Tyler with another young man alone in his dorm room. The roommate streamed the Skyped encounter live on his Twitter feed, “outing” Tyler as gay on the Internet. After learning of the outing, Tyler jumped off the George Washington bridge and died. Tyler’s roommate and another student were charged with crimes related to the incident and the roommate was convicted of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with evidence.
In 2013, Rebecca Sedwick, 12 years old, killed herself after as many as 15 classmates tormented her relentlessly on Facebook. Some of the classmates urged Rebecca to commit suicide. After nine months of the steady stream of hatred directed toward her, Rebecca jumped from a grain silo tower to her death on September 9, 2013. Two of her tormentors, girls aged 12 and 14, were initially charged with crimes related to the incident and placed under house arrest. The Florida state attorney decided to drop all charges after the two girls underwent counseling.
These are but two of countless incidents, most unreported in the media, of cyberbullying and harassment of teens by teens.
Following the coverage of the Clementi and Sedwick deaths, public demand for government action to address teen cyberbullying reached a crescendo. States and the federal government responded in a variety of ways. Among the responses is a federal government website directed to the issue, Stopbullying.gov. Below, you’ll find links to articles on the laws in each state.
Not all teen mischief, even if malicious, qualifies as the crime of bullying.
What is it?
As defined by most state’s laws (definitions and other elements of these laws differ from state to state), teen bullying is:
- unwanted physical, verbal, or other conduct
- directed at a minor by another minor
- that is repeated over time, and
- that has a negative impact on the victim’s mental or physical health, or academic performance.
Many, though not all, state laws against teen bullying refer to mistreatment based on the victim’s membership in one of a set of protected categories (such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, disability, and others). For example, bullying someone because she is disabled may incur harsher penalties than if she were targeted because of her clothing style. Under some state laws, bullying that targets victims because of a protected status is considered a hate crime.
Teen bullying damages everyone involved
As noted on the federal government website, all of the minors involved in bullying are potentially harmed by it. And, the harm may reverberate throughout the lives of those involved: During the 2012 presidential campaign, news media outlets reported that Republican candidate Mitt Romney had used force to cut a prep school classmate’s hair while Romney’s “posse” held the struggling, tearful boy down. One member of the bullying group said that the incident “troubles me to this day” and, while the story probably did not cause Romney’s election defeat, it certainly did not burnish his public image. Teen bullies and witnesses, as well as victims, are affected by bullying.
The Clementi and Sedwick tragedies mentioned at the beginning of this article both involved a particularly incendiary type of bullying: targeting of teens by teens via the internet, texts, and social media. This type of conduct is referred to as “cyberbullying.”
What is it?
Some states make it a separate crime for a person to bully another online or via social media. The National Conference of State Legislatures lists these laws on its website. Bullying can take the form of words (such as name-calling or rumors), images (such as posting or emailing revealing or embarrassing photos or videos), or even fake profiles sent or posted on social networks.
How does cyberbullying differ from bullying?
In general, the policy behind laws against teen bullying and cyberbullying is the same—to protect young people from the scarring effects of being targeted by their peers for cruel treatment. But, several features unique to electronic media make cyberbullying potentially more harmful, including that it is:
- Uncontained. Once a rumor, insult, threat, or image is sent or posted, it is potentially viewable by anyone with access to the Internet.
- Permanent. Data that enters the cyber media stream never really goes away, even if it is “deleted.”
- Immediate. A message can be sent or posted 24/7 and is instantaneously “published” to virtually anyone with access to the Internet, and
- Often anonymous. Because it’s easy to hide behind a fake persona, it’s difficult to identify and confront bullies or take action compelling them to stop.
Before their deaths, both Tyler Clementi and Rebecca Sedwick expressed great distress about the wide dissemination of the data posted by those who bullied them. All bullying can lead to long-term and even fatal damage to the victims, but cyberbullying ups the ante for those targeted.
Harassment of Minors
States often have discrete anti-harassment laws in addition to bullying laws. Bullying and harassment overlap, but harassment was defined by law first and has been developed and explained through court decisions and legislation for a longer period of time. When harassment occurs between minors, it has features that distinguish it from adult-on-adult harassment.
What is it?
In general, a minor commits harassment when she directs conduct at another minor that:
- is unwelcome by the victim
- is repetitive or severe enough to intimidate, threaten, or abuse the target(s)
- is of a nature that a reasonable person standing in the shoes of the victim would find intimidating or abusive, and
- has a negative impact on the victim’s mental or physical health, or academic performance.
Most state harassment laws prohibit targeting individuals based on the protected categories discussed above.
Harassment may be committed through physical, verbal, telephonic, or visual means (such as pictures, drawings, or graffiti); or electronic acts (such as social networking site posts or texts). Some state harassment laws include stalking, hate crimes, and bullying. And, harassment can create a hostile environment for an entire group of young people when it is directed at a protected category (such as sexual orientation).
Downside to the Campaign Against Bullying
While the public policy behind anti-bullying and anti-harassment laws is laudable, particularly those laws intended to protect young people, such laws have their critics. A cyberbullying law proposed in Indiana in 2013 would have prohibited students from engaging in “juvenile” acts online. Civil rights activists opposed the bill because, in their view, it essentially criminalized speech protected by the First Amendment.
In addition, a minor may be convicted of a crime for an impulsive Facebook comment and will have to deal with having a record well after he has matured enough to understand the ramifications of his action. (Though he may be able to eventually seal his juvenile record, the fact that he had one will, much like a posted photo, live on in the ether, discoverable by diligent employers and others.) Some critics of the laws point out that such results do more harm than good and amount to criminalizing childish mischief.
Evolving Area of Law
The focus on bullying (whether committed in real time and space or in cyberspace) is relatively recent. There will likely be many court decisions and statutory amendments in this area of law that will refine its scope. Check this site for updates.
State Cyberbullying Laws
For more information on cyberbullying and harassment, see the following.
- Cyberbullying as a Crime
- What are schools required to do to address bullying and cyberbullying?
- Can political speech be prosecuted as cyberbullying?
- Will the bullying charge against my son follow him into college and beyond?
- Don't kids have 1st Amendment rights?
- I posted a mean comment about a classmate - can I be suspended for that?
- Can a student be punished by the courts and her school for the same act of bullying?
- How do the police treat teen bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment?