When Cyberbullying Becomes Cybercrime-and-Punishment

When two girls, age 11 and 12, decided to cyberbully a former friend, you can be sure they didn’t expect to be hauled up on criminal charges, but that’s exactly what their malicious behavior earned them.

Many tweens and teens are shocked to discover their cyberbullying actions constitute crimes and that they may face the full consequences of the legal system as well as any punishment meted out by schools or family.

It comes as an additional shock for tweens and teens to learn that though they are minors with sealed criminal records, the internet handily circumvents that nuance if so much as one person outs their name on a social site – a risk that has been heightened by the FTC’s approval of Facebook activity inclusion in background checks. Convictions do not enhance the bright future a cyberbully may hope to have; it’s not exactly something anyone wants to include when answering the ever present question on work, school, and loan applications of “have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

In the case mentioned, the Seattle times reports that:

“…the 12-year-old girl posted sexually explicit photos and messages on a 12-year-old classmate’s Facebook page was given a six-month suspended sentence for cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing.

The case against the girl will be dismissed if she stays out of trouble for six months and follows other regulations, such as not contacting the victim and avoiding alcohol and drugs. Earlier, a co-defendant in the case, an11-year-old girl, was sent to the Juvenile Court Diversion Committee, which will order her to complete community service.

According to the charges, the two girls used the victim’s password information to post sexually explicit content on her Facebook page. They also instant-messaged “random individuals” under the alleged victim’s name to arrange sex acts, Issaquah police said.

Prosecutors said the victim had been at the home of one of the defendants in early March when she logged into Facebook. Leslie’s password information was somehow stored on the girl’s computer.

After the girls had a falling-out, the defendants used Leslie’s password to access her Facebook page “with the intent of embarrassing and tormenting the victim,” police said.”

For many kids and adults, the reality of criminal repercussions may be the best deterrent

I was asked to comment on that case, as was King County sheriff’s Capt. Michelle Bennett, a national expert on bullying and electronic harassment. Later, in a conversation between us, Bennett articulated a critical point in messaging and teaching about cyberbullying. While some youth will refrain from cyberbullying out of empathy and their own sense of decency, far more are likely to think twice when they realize the possibility of criminal prosecution accompanies their acts.

She suggested that the vast majority of youth (and adults) are not aware of how quickly their actions become criminal, and that effective cyberbullying messaging needs to include this component – particularly as more states are stepping up with stricter laws to protect victims of cyberbullying.

I think Bennett is spot on. While teaching empathy and understanding are key components of cyberbullying education, there is a percentage of youth for whom this simply won’t matter. They know damn well that their actions are mean – that was their whole intent. Of far more interest to these youth is self-preservation; they are far less likely to cyberbully when they understand the consequences they may face. We cannot overlook the teaching of this aspect when educating youth – or adults.

Yesterday I used this news story in a presentation with a hundred teen girls. To say they were shocked to discover it was criminal is an understatement.

Laws are catching up to cyberbullies

With the passing of electronic impersonation laws, cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing laws, misdeeds are catching up with cyberbullies. If you or your child has been the victim of cyberbullying, these laws may bring welcome relief – and justice. If you or your child is a cyberbully you/they may have already broken the law and may face misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony charges that will stick with you for the rest of your life, and are likely to stick with your child for the rest of their life as well.

Check the laws in your state to see exactly how much trouble cyberbullies may find themselves in, and expect that additional laws will be passed. Here is a sampling of laws today:

  1. A person is guilty of computer trespass if the person, without permission, deliberately gains access to another person’s computer system under without intending to commit additional crimes. (A gross misdemeanor)
  2. A person is guilty of computer trespass if the person, without permission, deliberately gains access to computer system with the intent to commit another crime (A class C felony)
  3. A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person, makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party:
    1. Using any sexual, indecent, or obscene words, images, or language, or suggesting the commission of any sexual act; (a gross misdemeanor)
    2. Anonymously or repeatedly makes contact whether or not conversation occurs; or (a gross misdemeanor)
    3. Threatens to injury on the person or property of the person called, or any member of his or her family or household. (a gross misdemeanor)
  4. A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person, makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party if:
    1. The perpetrator has previously been convicted of the crime of harassment with the same victim or a member of the victim’s family or household or any person specifically named in a no-contact order or no-harassment order (A class C felony)
    2. The perpetrator threatens to kill the person, or any other person. (A class C felony)
  5. A person is guilty of impersonation if they knowingly and without permission impersonate another actual person through or on an internet website or by other electronic means with the purpose of harming, intimidating, threatening, or defrauding another person. This includes opening an account or profile under the actual person’s name. (A misdemeanor)

The days of malicious online actions without repercussions are ending, and the internet will be a better place for it.



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