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What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying refers to harassment that occurs via the Internet, such as through text messages, social media posts, and video game chatter. Cyberbullying often includes threats and intimidation, and can involve the posting or sending of private pictures and information.

This article discusses cyberbullying from a consumer protection angle. For a discussion of cyberbullying from a criminal law perspective, read this FindLaw article.

How Is Cyberbullying Different from Bullying?

It may sound a bit quaint, but many of us remember bullies as being oversized classmates who ridiculed and intimidated victims during lunchtime and recess periods. Although bullies were annoying and occasionally frightening, victims generally found relief at the end of the school day.

Cyberbullying is different. Given the pervasive reach of the Internet, victims may be unable to avoid cyberbullying by simply going home. A cyberbully might send text messages to the victim's cell phone or post threatening messages on the victim's Facebook page. Some cyberbullies have created fake personal profiles to ridicule a victim, while others have sent nude or embarrassing pictures of the victim via a group text. Unfortunately, cyberbullying can have tragic outcomes.

Laws Against Cyberbullying

There is no federal law that specifically addresses cyberbullying. However, if the victim is bullied because of his or her race, gender, disability, or religion, then civil rights laws may apply.

While Congress hasn't yet addressed cyberbullying, nearly every state has enacted some sort of anti-cyberbullying law. Most of these state laws punish cyberbullying or cyberstalking as misdemeanors. There are concerns that treating cyberbullying as a criminal act, rather than as a social problem, may violate the First Amendment's free speech protections, and may result in people being prosecuted under vague laws.

Policies Against Cyberbullying

To help prevent cyberbullying, many social media companies have created anti-bullying policies. For example, Facebook states that it does not tolerate bullying or harassment, which includes a person sending repeated and unwanted messages or friend requests. Facebook asks users to report posts containing threats of violence, so that they can be removed.

Similarly, Instagram states that harassment, abuse, intimidation, bullying, and impersonation are against its terms of use. Users also aren't allowed to post private information or nude photos, either their own or someone else's.

Twitter also asks users to report abuse, and if the abuse includes threats of physical harm, users should contact law enforcement. However, in a candid admission, Twitter's CEO acknowledged that the company deals poorly with abuse and loses users because of that.

For those who play games online, childish and abusive chatter is, unfortunately, commonplace. Both Sony and Microsoft, the creators of the Playstation and Xbox gaming consoles, have anti-abuse policies in place that ask players to report abuse. However, anyone who spends a few minutes in a gaming lobby will probably find that these policies are minimally effective.

How to Protect Against Cyberbullying

Because the Internet provides anonymity, people who are otherwise respectful may engage in "trolling," which is the purposeful attempt to incite and offend others for personal amusement.

Fortunately, there are steps that consumers can take to protect themselves or their children from cyberbullying, such as:

  • Choosing proper privacy settings - Social media websites allow users to select privacy settings. One way to avoid personal photographs and information being misused is to allow only friends and family members to see and comment on them.
  • Muting or blocking the cyberbully - Users can block messages and friend requests from cyberbullies and spammers. Similarly, online gamers can mute an abusive player.
  • Report the cyberbully - As noted above, social media and gaming companies have reporting processes in place. If the abuse is ongoing or severe, it's a good idea to take screenshots or otherwise document it.
  • Tell your child to let you know if cyberbullying occurs - Parents should tell their children to let them know about cyberbullying incidents, including those directed against a friend or classmate. Also, while there may be some resistance, it may be a good idea for parents to monitor their children's social media accounts, perhaps as a condition for creating them.

Getting Help

If you or your child may be the victim of cyberbullying, do not wait and hope for it to pass. Contact your school's authorities, report the abuse, document it, and contact law enforcement if the abuse is ongoing or involves threats of violence. You should also consult with a consumer protection attorney so that you know what steps to take to end the abuse.

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