Cyberbullying Laws and Penalties in Illinois

Cyberbullying is not only harmful, it can also cross the line to criminal conduct.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated December 12, 2023

While bullying has always been particularly problematic among teenagers, cyberbullying can be even more harmful. With the widespread use of social media and messaging, this problem may be the most dangerous form of bullying to date. What some might not realize is that it can also be a crime.

Is Cyberbullying a Crime in Illinois?

Yes. Cyberbullying offenses fall under Illinois's crimes of harassment through electronic communications and cyberstalking. Both come with the possibility of felony penalties. Additional penalties apply if the offense was a hate crime.

What Are the Penalties for Cyberharassment and Cyberstalking in Illinois?

A person who uses electronic communications or devices to harass or stalk someone can face the following charges and penalties in Illinois.

Harassment Through Electronic Communications

Illinois makes it a crime to harass another person by using any type of electronic communication, including cell phones, smartphones, and computers. A person harasses another by knowingly engaging in conduct that would and does cause emotional distress to another.

Misdemeanors. A first violation carries class B misdemeanor penalties, punishable by up to six months of jail time. Repeat violations are class A misdemeanors and carry up to a year of jail time.

Felonies. However, in any of the following cases, the penalty is a class 4 felony:

  • the victim is younger than 13 and the defendant is 16 or older
  • the victim is younger than 18 and the defendant is 18 or older
  • it's the defendant's second offense against the same victim, or
  • it's the defendant's fourth harassment offense in 10 years.

A person convicted of a class 4 felony faces one to three years in prison.

(720 Ill. Comp. Stat. §§ 5/26.5-3, 5/26.5-5 (2023).)


More severe or repeated acts of harassment can lead to charges of cyberstalking. Cyberstalking charges typically apply when a person engages in a course of harassing conduct or uses electronic communications to threaten or place another in fear of physical harm.

Acts. For instance, a person commits cyberstalking when they use repeat electronic communications to cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or fear for their or another's safety. It's also cyberstalking to use electronic communications in a harassing manner that threaten or place another in reasonable fear of bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint. This includes engaging in repeat acts of harassment, spying or monitoring someone without their consent, or setting up a webpage that contains harassing statements (for a day or longer).

Felonies. Cyberstalking starts as a class 4 felony and increases to a class 3 felony for repeat convictions. Class 4 felonies generally carry one to three years of prison time. Class 3 felonies are punishable by two to five years in prison.

(720 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/12-7.5 (2023).)

Cyberbullying Hate Crimes

Cyberstalking or harassment motivated by a victim's actual or perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, immigration status, or national origin is a hate crime in Illinois. Hate crimes carry stiff penalties. A first offense is a class 4 felony, but the penalty bumps up to a class 3 felony if any acts took place in or near a school, college, or educational facility. Repeat offenses are class 2 felonies, punishable by three to seven years of prison time.

(720 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/12-7.1 (2023).)

Defenses to Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking Charges in Illinois

Common defenses to charges of harassment or stalking include claiming that free speech protections apply or establishing that a victim's reaction was unreasonable.

Free speech. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, but this protection is not absolute. Speech that poses an immediate threat to others is not protected. Nonviolent and non-threatening speech or conduct is generally protected even if it's unpopular or offensive to others. The line between protected speech and unprotected speech can be a fine one and may be worth exploring as a defense if there's ambiguity.

Unreasonable reaction. Illinois's harassment and stalking laws require proof that the victim's fearful reaction was reasonable. If a victim had a hypersensitive reaction to the conduct involved, a defendant may have a defense that the prosecution cannot meet its burden of proving all the elements of the crime. For instance, being upset over a rude and nasty comment does not rise to the level of reasonably fearing for one's safety.

Are Teenagers in Illinois Tried in Juvenile or Criminal Court?

Teens younger than 18 generally fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court in Illinois. Older teens will go to adult court.

Juvenile Delinquency Court

Kids who end up in the juvenile system might receive an "adjustment" or "diversion" if agreed to by a police officer or prosecutor. These are options that keep a juvenile out of the formal court system, but they come with rules that the juvenile must abide by.

If a juvenile ends up in the formal court process, they can face an adjudication hearing. Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges when it comes to "sentencing" teens. A judge might order a teen who's found delinquent to report to a probation officer, attend counseling, complete educational courses, or abide by curfews. Juvenile detention options are usually a last resort or for egregious offenses.

Adult Criminal Court

A teenager aged 18 or 19 will face charges in adult court. While sentencing alternatives are also available in adult court, so is jail or prison time.

(705 Ill. Comp. Laws § 405/5-105 (2023).)

See a Lawyer

If you face criminal charges related to bullying, talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney. For a juvenile defendant, it's a good idea to find an attorney who defends juvenile cases.

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