Cyberbullying is not a term that can be easily defined. If we tried to condense its definition into a single phrase, cyberbullying might be understood as the use of an electronic device to send hateful or threatening messages from one person to another, or to a group of others. This is a good place to start, but it doesn’t quite take into account all the online or electronically communicated actions a person can take to cause harm to another.
For instance, spreading rumors or posting embarrassing photos of someone online without their permission could constitute cyberbullying as well. The message could be sent in the form of a text, an email, a posting on Facebook, Twitter, a blog, a message board, or a comment section, a snapchat, or an instant message. What about a phone call? Is a hateful message communicated verbally over the phone different from one sent as a text message? It feels like it is, doesn’t it?
There are so many ways for us to communicate electronically that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of it all, and it poses a lot of questions about how we define and view cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is often looked at as a lesser form of bullying, as there is no direct physical harm being done to the victim. Some may think that it can be more easily ignored than face-to-face bullying. But approaching cyberbullying with this sort of mindset takes away from the psychological harm being done, which can sometimes even manifest itself in the form of physical pain.
When we talk about bullying, we often think of it involving minors or children on school property, and in the eyes of the law this is largely true. Every state defines bullying and cyberbullying differently under the law. You can go to stopbullying.gov/laws to look up the bullying laws and policies of each state. The legal problem that arises with cyberbullying is that it doesn’t always happen while on school property.
Schools have actually been sued for trying to discipline students for cyberbullying actions that took place off-campus and outside school hours. Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. made an interesting post on the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) site that discussed various court cases regarding cyberbullying. J.C. vs. Beverly Hills is one such case in which the bully won, as the court ruled that the school violated the student’s First-Amendment right to free speech.
However, there have been other cases in which the school won: Kowalski vs. Berkeley County School District is one example of this. The deciding factor for most cyberbullying cases is if the court rules whether or not the bully was creating a substantial disruption to the school environment. Because there have been rulings decided on both sides of the debate, cyberbullying is still in a legal gray area. However, non-punitive school intervention plays a very important part in stopping any kind of bullying. Schools must work with parents and students to create a safe learning environment for everyone.
The ages of the parties involved can also shape the perception of the issue. If an adult targets a minor it is viewed as cyber-harassment or cyberstalking, but never cyberbullying. It can be difficult for children to understand all of these differences, but extremely important that they do. For many children, there is a perceived disconnect between what is said or happens online and what goes on in reality. Children need to understand that things said in an online or virtual setting can have real world implications.
When you take all of these viewpoints into account, it can be very difficult to define cyberbullying both legally and socially. Where is the line between teasing and malicious intent? These are things that children must be able to discern. This is why HEAR advocates building strong home-school partnerships, and is one of the foundational approaches discussed in HEAR Presentation. Sue Swearer’s Empowerment Initiative blog is another a great resource that talks about strategies for youth, parents, and educators to curb cyberbullying in their schools.