Cyberbullying: A Modern Problem

I.    Introduction

   A girl kills herself because she finds out the boy she liked on MySpace.com (“Myspace”) was actually a couple of girls, allegedly assisted by their parents, making fun of her. [1]  Another teenager is lured to a girl’s home and beaten repeatedly in retaliation for comments made on MySpace.com, while the beating is filmed for posting on MySpace. [2].  These events and others have highlighted the lack of adequate criminal laws about online harassment and online bullying – sometimes called cyberstalking or cyberbullying.
This article will examine the recent cases of cyberbullying, address examples of current laws that deal with cyberbullying and cyberstalking, and, finally, explain what needs to be changed about current laws to address the developing criminal area of cyberbullying.

II.    Cyberbullying in the News

    A.  Megan Meier
    A month is a long time in the life of a 13-year-old girl.  In one month, Megan Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl befriended a 16-year-old boy over MySpace named Josh Evans. [3] They flirted through MySpace, but then problems began when Evans began insulting Megan. [4]  Evans sent Megan a cruel message, ending their friendship by saying “I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” [5].  Then, Megan told her mother about the very mean messages being left about her on the Internet that said things like, “Megan Meier is a slut” and “Megan Meier is fat.” [6] These messages escalated over a two-day period. [7]  Shortly after on October 16, 2006, Megan killed herself. [8]
Later it was revealed that Josh Evans was a fake identity, created by a girl who knew Megan and the girl’s mother.  [9] One of the major problems with finding the parents of cyberbullies responsible for their childrens’ actions is the lack of a state or federal crime that applies to cyberbullying. [10].  No charges have been filed against the young girl and mother who, along with another friend, created the profile and initiated the harassment. [11]

    B.  Victoria Lindsay
    On March 30, 2008, Victoria Lindsay was lured to a friend’s house, where she was soon after attacked by six girls.  [12]  The girls slammed her head into a wall, and then punched her over and over until she was unconscious.  [13]  Then, once Victoria woke up, the girls began beating her again. [14]  One of the girls filmed the beating the entire time, with the intent of posting the video on the popular video Website YouTube.com (“YouTube”). [15]  The mother of one of the girls who took part in the beating claims that the beating was in retaliation for comments Victoria had made on MySpace. [16]  The girls were charged under assault and battery, but nothing involving the creation of the video with the intent of putting it on the Internet.  [17]  Victoria’s  father said the motivation was to become famous on the internet, and is calling , along with others, for something to be done about the “shock Websites” that motivate children to create shocking videos in order to become Internet stars.  [18]

    C.  JuicyCampus
    A Website that allows anonymous posting of any information one wishes, JuicyCampus.com (“JuicyCampus”), encourages university students to spread gossip and rumors about their classmates, professors, and others.  [19]. The information posted ranges from asking who has had sexual relations with a certain professor to rating the hotness (or ugliness) of various sororities to identifying which people on campus are gay. [20]  The implications of this Web site and others like it have not been fully explored, but the spreading of rumors and the escalating popularity of JuicyCampus implicate the possibilities of cyberharassment and cyberbullying.

III.    Current Laws
    In Missouri, where Megan Meier  lived  and was bullied, the state statutes do not account for situations of online stalking or harassment.  [21]  The statute accounts for repeated harassment, and for credible threats of death or serious physical injury, but does not mention online harassment. [22]  The Missouri governor is looking into changing the laws to respond to cases similar to Megan Meier’s suicide. [23]   The town of Florissant, one county away from where Megan lived, passed an internet harassment ordinance in Megan’s memory to ensure that there are laws to protect children who are victims of online harassment and bullying. [24]
    A Florida statute goes further in covering cyberbullying than Missouri and many other states.  [25]  Unlike the Missouri statute, it specifically mentions cyberstalking – defining it as electronic communications that cause “severe emotional distress” and serve “no legitimate purpose.” [26]  A statute like this can encompass more situations, including Megan Meier’s suicide.  However, it likely will not cover the beating of Victoria, which is allegedly motivated by posting a controversial video on YouTube.
    Washington state has a fairly broad cyberstalking statute. [27]  Washington, unlike many states, separates out cyberstalking into its own statutory section. [28]   In addition to covering situations of harassment and intimidation, the statute says that, “A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to…embarrass any other person…makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party…using any lewd…words, images, or language…anonymously or repeated whether or not conversation occurs.” [29]  By including situations of embarrassment and those involving lewd language, even those many anonymously, individuals who bully others online can be punished. [30]   This could facilitate prosecutions against individuals posting on JuicyCampus.  Ignoring issues with jurisdiction, an individual who anonymously posts a sexual or lewd rumor on JuicyCampus about someone else may be able to be convicted under the statute.
    Given this range of statutes related to the problem of cyberbullying,  and the lack of consistency in terminology – “online stalking,” “online harassment,” “cyberbullying,” etc – state law has a way to go to adapt to the new situations involving online bullying.

IV.    What Needs to Change
    As explored above, there are a variety of types of statutes which may be applied, based on the state in which the cyberbullying occurs.  Some states make mean, crude messages on popular Websites illegal, whereas others require a credible threat of death or serious physical injury or severe emotional distress. [31]
     The reason that change is needed to protect individuals from cyberbullying is the psychological effect the Internet has on its audience, which is over one-third children and teenagers aged three to seventeen. [32]  Individuals online feel more empowered to say what they want or anything that comes to mind, a phenomenon dubbed by experts as the “online disinhibition effect.”  [33]   People say and do things in cyberspace that they would not do in face-to-face conversations for three reasons – (1) they can be anonymous, (2) they are not seen and (3) the conversations are not in real time. [34]  In addition, the response to these uninhibited actions is especially dramatic in “emotionally vulnerable young people” who can be more easily manipulated when they go online. [35]  When teenagers and others are cruel online, it brings real-world consequences like the suicide of Megan Meier.  Additionally, the online disinhibition effect can be translated into the real world, as in the beating of Victoria Lindsay which was allegedly motivated by the desire to post a video on YouTube.
    Although certain state and federal laws do not address these situations, some jurisdictions are changing their laws and special interest groups are getting involved.  Cities like Flossiant, Missouri have enacted ordinances to fill in the gaps of current state laws.  Parry Aftab, a lawyer famous for her work in Internet law, and the Wired Safety Group have created a Website to address the issue of cyberbullying –StopCyberbullying.org.  [36] The Website educates individuals about cyberbullying and what steps can be taken to eliminate it. [37]  The National Crime Prevention Council also has a campaign targeted toward children to help them recognize cyberbullying and to explain how to eliminate it called “Delete Cyberbullying.” [38].
    So, while there are strides being made to address the problem of cyberbullying, many states’ laws need to change to address the issues that arise when there is no recourse for punishing individuals who have acted criminally.  Despite the fact that the girls that abused Victoria Lindsay and the two young men that guarded the door of the house where she was trapped are being charged with various counts of assault and battery, Megan Meier’s family has no recourse against the family that cyberbullied their daughter. [39]

[1] Kim Zetter, Prosecutor Will Review Megan Meier Cyberbullying Case, Wired, Nov. 19, 2007, http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/11/prosecutor-will.html.

[2] Teens Arrested Over Filmed Beating, CBS News, Apr. 8, 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/04/08/national/main4000740.shtml?source=mostpop_story.

[3] Good Morning America, Parents: Cyber Bullying Let to Teen’s Suicide, ABC News, Nov. 19, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Story?id=3882520.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Teresa Woodward, Florissant, MO Passes Cyber Harassment Legislation, MyFox St. Louis, Nov. 27, 2007, http://www.myfoxstl.com/myfox/pages/News/Detail?contentId=5046863&version=1&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=TSTY&pageId=3.2.1.

[8] Good Morning America, supra note 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Zetter, supra note 1.

[11] Woodward, supra note 7.

[12] Teens Arrested Over Filmed Beating, supra note 2.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Teens Arrested Over Filmed Beating, supra note 2.

[19] Juicy Campus, http://juicycampus.com/ (last visited Apr. 16, 2008).

[20] Id.

[21] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.255 (2007).

[22] Id.

[23] Woodward, supra note 7.

[24] Id.

[25] Fla. Stat. Ann. § 784.048 (West 2004)

[26] Id.

[27] Wash. Rev. Code § 9.61.260 (2008).


[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Fla. Stat. Ann. § 784.048; Mo. Rev. Stat. § 565.255; Wash. Rev. Code § 9.61.260.


[32] Ben Macklin, Marketing to Kids Online, eMarketer, Aug. 29, 2006, http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?id=1004136.


[33] John Suler, The Online Disinhibition Effect, eNotAlone, http://www.enotalone.com/article/2458.html (last visited Apr. 17, 2008).


[34] Id.


[35] Good Morning America, supra note 3.


[36] StopCyberbullying, http://www.stopcyberbullying.org/ (last visited Apr. 16, 2008).


[37] Id.


[38] National Crime Prevention Council, Delete Cyberbullying, http://www.ncpc.org/newsroom/current-campaigns/cyberbullying (last visited Apr. 16, 2008).

[39] Teens Arrested Over Filmed Beating, supra note 2; Woodward, supra note 7.

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