Cyber Bullying Laws: Can They Protect Our Children?

Bullying is nothing new; ever since schoolchildren have gathered on playgrounds, youngsters have been singled out by their peers. But, some things have changed, and the disturbing new trend of cyber bullying has turned social media outlets into a hotbed of abusive electronic communications that can sweep through the internet in moments, sometimes with deadly results.

Cyber bullying can take many different forms and occurs among children and teens in a wide range of age groups. For lawmakers, addressing this dangerous trend has proven a challenge. Yet, victims and their parents are not without recourse; swift action by those harmed by cyber bullying can not only stop the cyber bully, but can enforce a culture of zero-tolerance that will ultimately benefit all.

The Cyber Bully and its Victim

One might think that cyber bullying is something that occurs only in middle and high schools throughout the country. Shockingly, the harassment sometimes continues into young adulthood, as some college-age persons play the role of the playground bully.

In a recent high-profile case, 18-year-old student Tyler Clementi leapt to his death off the George Washington Bridge after fellow students secretly filmed and streamed online footage of him involved in a homosexual encounter.

Two undergraduates, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, were arrested and have been charged with invasion of privacy, although investigators are considering further charges linked to the fact that the footage captured Clementi engaged in a homosexual act; Cyber bullies who choose their victims based on sexual orientation, religion, race, etc. can be charged with a hate crime, potentially a much more serious charge than invasion of privacy.

The Ugly Methods of Cyber Bullying

The Clementi case is just one example of the gravely serious consequences of cyber bullying. Cyber bullying is broadly defined as when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the internet, interactive digital technologies, or mobile phones. Adult involvement usually opens the door to other issues, like cyber harassment or cyber stalking.

It can occur in a variety of mediums, including social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, video-sharing sites such as YouTube, through instant messaging, or via text messaging on a cell phone. As young Americans have wholeheartedly embraced social media, the prevalence of cyber bullying is perhaps unsurprising: estimates of the number of youths who experience cyber bullying range anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent or more.

New York and Federal Law on Cyber Bullying

With the level of concern over cyber bullying on the rise, many are wondering what local lawmakers are doing to combat the problem. In New York, there are no specific laws against cyber bullying or computer harassment. Yet, at a recent vigil held in honor of Tyler Clementi, Governor Paterson vowed to pass new anti-cyber bullying legislation. Bills seeking to curb cyber bullying have been introduced in the New York legislature before, but have failed to obtain enough approval to be signed into law.

While New York has not yet addressed the phenomenon, other states have. In Connecticut, it is a misdemeanor when a person acts “with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person” to “communicate with a person…by computer network…in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.” Federal lawmakers are also trying to take action; a bill currently under consideration in the U.S. House of Representative targets harsh words on the internet.

However, even without specific cyber bullying legislation, victims and parents in New York are not without options. Many traditional torts and criminal statutes can and have been used against cyber bullies.

Causes of action such as harassment, defamation, or even wrongful death may be available for use against the cyber bully, their parents, or a school or other responsible supervisor depending upon the facts of a particular incident. As in the Clementi case, prosecutors also may be able to charge for invasion of privacy or hate crimes. The best way to find out what causes of action may be available if your child has been a victim is to contact an attorney.

What You Should Do About Cyber Bullying

Adults have a critical role to play in stopping cyber bullies. Prevention is a powerful strategy, and teaching kids that cyber bullying is not acceptable is a prudent first step. But, when bullying has already occurred, stepping in is essential.

Victims and their parents should contact an experienced New York personal injury attorney. Bullying cases are difficult to successfully pursue unless the child has experienced serious physical or documented psychological trauma as a result of traditional or cyber bullying; in these cases, financial compensation may be in order. Perhaps more importantly, a knowledgeable attorney can help parents send a strong message of zero tolerance to bullies that can save other children from similar ordeals in the future.