Many teenagers have experienced some form of bullying, cyberbullying, or online harassment or know someone who has. These hurtful and harmful acts can have devastating effects on victims and, in some cases, are serious enough to warrant school discipline or even criminal or delinquency charges.
Legislators, schools, parents, advocates, and others have grappled with how to effectively address the issue of cyberbullying, whether in everyday life or through school policies or state legislation. While there are many facets to these acts and ways to address them, 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, committed suicide after his college roommate secretly recorded Tyler with another young man alone in his dorm room. The roommate streamed the video 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.
Rebecca Sedwick, 12 years old, was tormented relentlessly by as many as 15 classmates 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 and died. 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 heartbreaking examples are merely two of countless incidents of cyberbullying and harassment of teens by teens that occur every day in real life.
Media coverage of the tragic deaths of Clementi and Sedwick spurred public outrage and action at the local and national levels to address bullying and cyberbullying. 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. The CDC and Department of Education also came together to define bullying and inform the public about how serious a problem of bullying is.
Teen bullying can be defined as:
Bullying via the Internet, text messaging, social media applications, or other online platforms is referred to as "cyberbullying."
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:
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.
Not all teen teasing or mischief, even if malicious, qualifies as a crime. So when does bullying cross the line to a criminal act? Bullying can be a crime when it becomes threatening or abusive, involves violence or extortion, invades another's privacy, exploits someone, or uses obscene language or images, among other ways.
Two common crimes for prosecuting acts of bullying are harassment and stalking. Some state legislatures amended their general harassment and stalking laws so they are broad enough to include acts of bullying or cyberbullying. Certain states decided to create new cyberbullying crimes and impose harsher penalties for such acts.
Harassing and stalking conduct can be verbal, written, or physical. When it occurs online, through electronic devices or communications, via computer or wireless networks, or on social media applications or platforms, it might be referred to as online harassment or cyberstalking.
In certain cases, harassment or stalking can rise to the level of a hate crime and incur harsh penalties—for instance, when a person targets an individual based on a protected category, such as gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or identity, national origin, ancestry, or disability.
Teenagers who are 18 or 19 years old face criminal charges in adult court. A conviction can result in jail time, fines, probation, or other criminal sanctions. It will also mean a public criminal record that can impact the ability to get student loans, housing, and professional licenses.
Most teenagers age 17 and younger end up in juvenile court (although some can end up in adult court). Juveniles face delinquency charges and, if found guilty, they will have an adjudication of delinquency (rather than a conviction). Juvenile court judges tend to have more discretion than adult court judges when it comes to fashioning an appropriate punishment. A delinquent child (and sometimes their parents) might be required to undergo counseling, take classes, or give speeches about the impact of bullying. An adjudication could stay on a juvenile's record for some time but often is confidential.
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. Some critics of the laws point out that such results do more harm than good and amount to criminalizing childish mischief.
If you're facing criminal or delinquency charges for bullying-related acts, consult a criminal defense lawyer.