A Push Toward Silence: The Progression of Cyberbullying and the Laws to Stop It

By: Lara Rhodes

In 2006, Tina Meier found her thirteen-year-old daughter Megan, hanging from a belt in her closet.  Megan committed suicide after a fictitious boy,[1] Josh Evans, posted disparaging comments on Megan’s MySpace message board calling her “fat” and a “slut.”[2] Less than one-half hour before she ended her short life, Megan received a MySpace message from Evans stating: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are.  You are a bad person and everybody hates you.  Have a shitty rest of your life.  The world would be a better place without you.”[3] Evans’ deplorable conduct ultimately led to Megan’s decision to end her life.

Numerous media outlets recently exposed the extent of bullying and its devastating results.   Freshman Tyler Clementi, of Rutgers University, committed suicide after his roommate secretly broadcast Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male live online.[4] Clementi’s roommate posted messages several times in reference to him: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight.  I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam.  I saw him making out with a dude.  yay,” and “[a]nyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”[5] The next day, Clementi updated his status on Facebook to read: “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”[6]

Both incidents are painful to even contemplate, but both remind us of the dangers of online bullying, and its prevalence in modern society.

Online bullying has become increasingly rampant with the advancement of technology.   The public coined a phrase to describe it: “cyberbullying.”[7] The Internet has enhanced the risks associated with cyberbullying by intensifying the dangerous effects of the communication on the victim in various ways.[8]

First, in choosing the Internet as their forum, harassers can easily access their victim and repeatedly harass him or her with a simple click of the mouse.[9] For example, with minimal effort, Megan’s harasser was able to repeatedly send her messages.[10] The accumulation of hateful messages broke Megan down.

Further, the harm inflicted on the Internet is public and constant, making it more painful for the victim.[11] Since Tyler’s harasser chose to use the Internet, his private encounter suddenly became the business of anyone who viewed his roommate’s Twitter page.[12] This situation morphed his private moment into some form of “public entertainment.”  It is clear that Tyler became distraught after learning that his private life was now public knowledge.

Additionally, the Internet gives the speaker “unprecedented anonymity,” thereby “eliminat[ing] the social checks of ostracism and condemnation”[13] and shielding the harasser from the effects of their behavior.[14] So Tyler’s and Megan’s harassers may not have known the amount of pain they were inflicting on their victims.  This lack of a visual feedback mechanism from victims is what makes the Internet so dangerous.  These two harassers could not see the tears or the hurt of their victim and realize that a bad joke had gone too far.  Their victims’ pain was worlds away, hidden behind a computer monitor, and only discovered after it was too late.

There has been nearly nationwide acknowledgement of the effects of cyberbullying.[15] Most states have redrafted their laws to include at least one form of cyber victimization.[16] In April 2009, the federal House of Representatives introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act.[17] The Act “amends the federal criminal code to impose criminal penalties on anyone who transmits in interstate or foreign commerce a communication intended to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to another person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.”[18] The bill is pending before its committee.[19] Most bills do not make it out of committee referrals, so this bill will not likely pass (at least not this time around).[20] Despite this reality, the bill is a step in the right direction.  It shows that American governmental entities recognize the prevalence and severity of cyberbullying, and that they believe that online harassers should face criminal consequences.

The United States’ federal and state governments continue to work toward creating a safer online social networking environment for our children.  There is hope for a reformed future.  Hope for increased awareness that a few typed words and a couple clicks can cause unfathomable pain, and may have serious consequences.  There is hope for a proper legacy for Megan Meier, Tyler Clementi, and all those who have similarly lost their lives because of cyberbullying.  And more importantly, there is hope for those who are still suffering silently.   Hope that one day the tables will turn, and their harassers will finally fall silent.

 


[1] Josh Evan’s fictitious MySpace account was created by a forty-seven year old woman, Lori Drew, to “mess with Megan.”  Drew’s intent was apparently to find out what Megan would say about her daughter, Megan’s Former Friend.  Christopher Maag, A Hoax Turned Fatal Draws Anger but No Charges, N.Y. Times, Nov. 28, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/28/us/28hoax.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.
[2] Steve Pokin, ‘My Space’ Hoax Ends with Suicide of Dardenne Prairie Teen, SUBURBAN JOURNALS, Nov. 11, 2007, http://suburbanjournals.stltoday.com/articles/2007/11/13/news/sj2tn20071110-1111stc_pokin_1.ii1.txt.
[3] Id. (since the Megans’ MySpace account has been deleted, this quote is according to her father’s memory of the message).
[4] Emily Friedman, Victim of Secret Dorm Sex Tape Posts Facebook Goodbye, Jumps to His Death, ABC NEWS, Sept, 29, 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/US/victim-secret-dorm-sex-tape-commits-suicide/story?id=11758716&page=1.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Renee Servance, Comment, Cyberbullying, Cyber-harassment, and the Conflict Between Schools and the First Amendment, 2003 Wis. L. Rev. 1213, 1217 -1218 (2003)
[8] Kate Schwartz, Note, Criminal Liability for Internet Culprits: The Need for Updated State Laws Covering the Full Spectrum of Cyber Victimization, 87 Wash. U. L. Rev. 407, 412 (2009).
[9] Id. at 413.
[10] Pokin, supra note 2.
[11] Schwartz, supra note 9, at 413.
[12] Friedman, supra note 4.
[13] Scott Hammack, The Internet Loophole: Why Threatening Speech On-Line Requires a Modifications of the Courts’ Approach to True Threats and Incitement, 36 Colum. J.L. & Soc. Probs. 65, 83 (2002).
[14] Schwartz, supra note 9, at 414.
[15] Id. at 416.
[16] Id.
[17] Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, H.R. 1966, 111th Cong. (2009).
[18] Id.
[19] GovTrack, Status, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-1966 (last visited Oct. 15, 2010).
[20] Id.

One thought on “A Push Toward Silence: The Progression of Cyberbullying and the Laws to Stop It

  1. After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers often learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in 2010.

    Endorsed by Dr. Phil [“Bullied to Death”], “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities. Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text messages, Facebook and YouTube posts and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.”

    Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the laws that affect them.]
    Regards, -Judge Tom

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