Cyberbullying Laws & Legal Solutions
While cyberbullying laws are presently very few and far between, legal solutions do exist for victims of cyber abuse— including cyberbullying, cyber harassment, and cyberstalking.
Cyber abuse in its various forms, which includes cyberbullying, cyber harassment, and cyberstalking, is increasingly recognized as a significant public health concern.
To understand what cyber abuse is and what it can look like, you should focus on what is being done and how it is being done. All forms of cyber abuse involve two main components:
(1) a type of behavior, the conduct and (2) a means of communication, the tool.
The first element for identifying cyber abuse is recognizing the type of conduct that is involved. This is, essentially, bullying.
The conduct may consist of threats, harassment (i.e., conduct that is repeated over time), or other actions taken to embarrass or humiliate the victim. Cyber abuse may also involve nonconsensual image-sharing (i.e., ‘revenge porn’).
Cyberbullying involves conduct directed toward a person or persons for the purpose of causing harm.
The second component of cyberbullying involves the tool used: Technology.
The type of technology a perpetrator may use can vary from case to case.
A perpetrator may utilize the Internet or a cell phone. The perpetrator may post images or information on social media, send text messages or emails, or utilize other forms of technological communication. The perpetrator may combine any of these.
The options are limited only by the perpetrator’s imagination.
Cyberbullying vs. ‘Traditional’ Bullying
It is important to note that the distinction between cyberbullying and so-called ‘traditional’ bullying is not merely a technical or inconsequential one.
In some ways, yes, it is true that cyber abuse is old-fashioned bullying and abuse just transposed to a new kind of media.
But there are implications to a perpetrator’s use of technology as the chosen tool for abuse that makes the bullying even more harmful—and the resulting damage potentially far more severe.
Features of Cyberbullying
The use of technology enables a perpetrator to inflict greater harm on a victim—and to do so with much less effort.
The potential for greater harm from online abuse flows directly from several factors related to use of technology as a communication device. These factors include:
- Anonymity: Through use of technology, the perpetrator is able to interact, communicate, or publish anonymously.
- Audience: Using technology enables the perpetrator to reach a far greater audience—which means the ability to embarrass or humiliate the victim is exponentially multiplied. And a larger audience can result in the creation of a mob mentality in which, like a snowball rolling downhill, the abuse can take on a life of its own as more and more perpetrators get involved.
- Avoidance: Through use of technology, a perpetrator may remain insulated from having to personally confront or interact with a victim—or avoid witnessing the victim’s true suffering that results from the perpetrator’s actions.
- Access: As a result of the relative ease of communicating through technology and the ability to communicate 24 hours a day means that a perpetrator’s conduct faces virtually no external restraints. As a result, a victim may experience abuse that feels unrelenting.
Some methods commonly employed by perpetrators of online abuse include:
- Flaming. Engaging in aggressive exchanges with angry and vulgar language.
- Harassment. Repeatedly sending nasty, mean, and insulting messages.
- Denigration. Gossiping or spreading rumors about a victim to damage his/her reputation or relationships.
- Impersonation. Pretending to be someone else while sending or posting material to create trouble or danger for the victim, or to damage his/her reputation or relationships.
- Outing. Sharing a victim’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online.
- Trickery. Convincing a victim into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, and then sharing it with others.
- Exclusion. Engaging in conduct with the aim of intentionally excluding a victim from groups or social activities.
- Cyberstalking. Placing a victim under surveillance, or causing them to feel that they are being watched, followed, monitored, or surveilled. It typically involves repeated, intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear.
Cyber abuse victims span all ages and demographics.
The term ‘cyberbullying’ is typically used when the person experiencing the online abuse or aggression is a minor or relatively young. When the victim is an adult, the behavior may be referred to as ‘cyber harassment’
That being said, anyone can be a victim.
There are, however, certain risk factors that may increase the likelihood that a person may experience online bullying or harassment.
In the U.S., the likelihood of being a victim of cyberbullying or cyber harassment are increased by:
- young age
- female gender
- a visible disability or impairment.
Why is Cyber Abuse a Problem?
When they first learn of cyber abuse, many people’s initial reaction is to dismiss it as a non-problem.
‘Why does it matter?’ They may say.
Or they might suggest that the problem can easily be solved if the victim just ‘logged-off’—i.e., no longer interacts with others online.
But, logging-off is hardly a solution.
In fact, to simply opt-out from engaging in online interactions is virtually (excuse the pun) impossible.
Quite simply, in this day and age, permanently logging-off is impossible. Online interactions are interwoven into every aspect of our modern lives. And this reality is even more pronounced among teens and youth.
But, more importantly, logging off—even if it were possible—does nothing to solve the problem for several reasons.
First, cyberbullying and cyber harassment are not limited to online interactions. As discussed above, any form of technology may be used as a tool for cyber abuse.
Second, even if the cyber abuse at issue is, for a particular victim, only occurring online, the damage created continues to exist regardless of whether the victim interacts online. In other words, given that cyber bullying and harassment may center on matters published online that are witnessed by others, logging off would only solve the problem if everyone else in the world were to log off too. Obviously, that will not happen.
Cyberbullying is a problem that follows its victims.
We should all care about cyber abuse because the problem is pervasive, it is often severe and, importantly, the effects can be highly damaging.
In fact, the effects may be even more severe than so-called traditional bullying.
Cyberbullying and cyber harassment victims often face increased absenteeism, anxiety, depression, poorer grades in school, damage to physical health and well-being, self-esteem, sleeping issues, social anxiety, and more.
And most frightening of all, too many victims—believing that there is no other way to escape—may ultimately resort to suicide.
Cyber abuse can be an urgent and devastating problem.
Cyberbullying Laws & Legal Solutions
There are few cyberbullying laws presently on the books in the United States. But several laws and principles exist that may be leveraged to combat cyberbullying, cyber harassment, and cyberstalking.
Identify the Perpetrator.
I always tell my clients that the first key in any cyber abuse case is to definitively ascertain the identity of the perpetrator.
In many cases, the victim often has a good idea who the perpetrator or cyberbully may be.
But to invoke cyberbullying laws that may offer protection against online abuse, a simple hunch is not enough. Instead, to move forward with legal remedies, you will need to establish or confirm the culprit’s identity with proof.
If the evidence in your possession is not enough to identify the perpetrator, you should consider hiring an expert with experience in conducting cybersecurity-related investigations.
1. Criminal Laws.
Several states have enacted criminal cyberbullying laws; explicitly prohibiting behavior that can properly called cyber abuse.
Georgia, for instance, makes it a crime to harass, molest, threaten, or intimidate anyone through electronic communication or by phone. Several other states have similar laws.
A victim may seek enforcement of these criminal laws by reporting the abuse to local law enforcement authorities.
2. Education Laws.
When dealing with cyber abuse arising in or around school, a legal avenue to explore is whether any education-centered cyberbullying laws apply.
In Georgia, for instance, public education laws specifically prohibit bullying that involves:
use of data or software that is accessed through a computer, computer system, computer network, or other electronic technology of a local school system.
A student that violates this or other education-centered cyberbullying laws may face stiff penalties—including removal from the school and assignment to an alternative school.
3. Workplace Laws.
Depending on the substance of the harassing communications, the victim may be able to rely on employment-related laws to combat cyber harassment.
For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a federal anti-discrimination law) prohibits conduct that is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with a person’s employment, if the harassment is because of race, gender, national origin, religion, or disability.
If the victim is being harassed because of one of those protected traits, and the perpetrator is a co-worker of the victim or the victim suffers employment-related adverse actions due to the harassment, an employer may have a duty to step in and take steps to stop the harassment or redress the negative employment-related effects of the harassment. If the employer fails to either, as appropriate, it may be held liable.
4. Restraining Orders.
Most states authorize a victim to obtain a restraining order or a protective order to guard a victim from threatening, intimidating, or harassing communications.
Georgia, for example, authorizes courts to issue a restraining order when a perpetrator engages in conduct such as placing a person under surveillance or engaging in contact with a person “for the purpose of harassing and intimidating” the victim.
Importantly, this law expressly defines contact to include electronic communications:
the term ‘contact’ shall mean any communication including without being limited to communication in person, by telephone, by mail, by broadcast, by computer, by computer network, or by any other electronic device.
While restraining order statutes like these are useful precisely because of the broad definition of that key word contact—the same word also reveals a clue as to a limitation on the usefulness of restraining orders in cyberbullying cases: contact. In many cases, cyber abuse includes indirect harmful communications; the negative communications swirl about and center on the victim, but the perpetrator does not directly contact the victim. In these cases, obtaining a restraining order may be challenging, even if the perpetrator is known and identified.
Depending on the case and through careful case preparation, this problem can be avoided—and the victim may successfully secure a restraining order even though the perpetrator avoided direct contact with the victim.
5. Civil Lawsuits.
In addition to proceeding under cyberbullying laws, online abuse may also form the basis of a successful civil lawsuit.
A civil case stemming from online harassment or other forms of cyber abuse may proceed under traditional theories of liability, such as intentional torts or negligence.
For instance, a known and identified perpetrator may be directly and personally liable for intentional torts they commit. For example, a cyberbully may be sued for libel/defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Entities not directly engaging in acts of cyber abuse may also be held liable in civil lawsuits. Cases against these third-parties proceed under traditional theories of liability and negligence. For example, a social media platform or other online publisher may be liable for failing to prevent foreseeable injuries to a victim or for the company’s failure to intervene when it knew or should have known that harm would result.
Hire an Experienced Lawyer
If you are a victim of cyber abuse, cyberbullying laws exist that may apply to your case and legal solutions are available.
Contact a lawyer who is experienced in cyberbullying laws and cyber abuse cases—including cyberbullying, cyber harassment, and cyberstalking. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the issue and pursue legal remedies that may be available to you. It is important to get help as early as possible.
Most importantly, remember: Help is available.
You can recover from this.
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