Most Cyberbullying Cases Aren’t Criminal


Many of you perhaps already saw the brief comments I wrote for the New York Times Opinion Page in the aftermath of Tyler Clementi’s tragic suicide.  They asked me to comment on the extent to which this incident was typical of many cyberbullying cases that end in suicide and whether or not criminal action against the bullies is an appropriate response.  Below are my comments for those of you who hadn’t already seen them.  I also encourage everyone to explore the other perspectives included on the “Room for Debate” page.

Cyberbullying, while similar to traditional harassment, does have a different quality — namely, humiliating rumors and vicious taunts can be viewed by millions online and they can never be removed from the Internet. Cyberbullying laws are useful to the extent that they draw attention to this problem, but it is important that laws are crafted in a way that is informed by research, not singular high profile incidents.

The vast majority of cyberbullying incidents can and should be handled informally: with parents, schools, and others working together to address the problem before it rises to the level of a violation of criminal law.

Certainly, tragic incidents like suicide, thrust cyberbullying (and traditional bullying) into the public discussion. Prosecutors are forced to shoe-horn these incidents into existing statutes, and in some cases this is not done consistently or even appropriately.

It perhaps is not surprising that those incidents that result in significant harm to the target, such as a suicide, are handled more seriously by the criminal justice system. But to some extent this is true in other areas of criminal law. If I drive home from a party after having a few too many drinks, maybe I make it home without being caught. Or maybe I get pulled over and arrested for drunk driving. Or, maybe I swerve onto the shoulder and hit a pedestrian. In all cases I was engaged in the same illegal behavior. But the harm that results will, in some cases, become an important determinant of the appropriate punishment.


  1. As a grieving parent, I know the heartache of Bullycide. I know the looks. I know the stares. I know the whispers. I know the pain. I know people wonder how something like this could happen in their community, in their school. I still wonder that as I grieve my son’s death two years after his bullycide. My 17 year old son Michael Joseph Berry was the victim of bullycide on his 17th birthday, September 15, 2008 at Mira Loma High School.

    National Bullying Prevention month is October, and in honor of my son I have started a letter writing campaign on behalf of my organization B.R.A.V.E. ™ (Bullies Really Are Violating Everyone) in order to bring awareness to the ever growing national issue of bullycide. The climate of bullying has changed to the point that it is causing real damage, and ultimately the people who bully must face the consequences of their actions.

    Bullycide is a death that leaves many victims in its wake. Families are left heartbroken, destroyed, with no place to turn, and very few bullycide resources at their disposal. In many cases the schools blame the victim, and the police refuse to get involved because no laws have been broken.

    I realize part of the problem in prosecuting bullying is due to the fact that the perpetrators are in fact children themselves. However, it is my opinion that we must hold not only the children accountable, but the professional’s accountable for the behavior that is tolerated at their school. Additionally, when we say we have a zero tolerance for bullying we must mandate and enforce that zero tolerance – even if it’s uncomfortable.

    Our national bullying problem is further compounded by the failure to have any type of national law that holds the schools responsible for the behavior of the children in there care, even state laws widely differ on how best to protect our children while at school. We are working to change and update the California State Anti-Bullying Law, which was last updated in 2003, where it was a D prior to the 2003 update. Currently, our law is ranked a B by the watch dog organization Bully Police.

    If we are to see a change in law then we must first do something other than talk about it. We must realize it is more rampant than anyone knows, and we must toss out our preconceived ideas of what bullying means and deal with it today – as it is because the lives of our children depend on us to ACT, and act swiftly. There’s so much that needs to be done on behalf of the children who suffer at the hands of bullies.

    We need as a society to do more than just play lip service to the very real pain that is associated with bullying. Each victim of bullycide is a child that was left to flounder, a child that felt no one understood, a child that felt betrayed by the very people who were charged with their wellbeing. Parents of the victims and the perpetrators both expect the schools to do something, and yet we as a society do nothing. I urge you to stand with us as we come together in the quest of valor, committed to courage in defense of a noble cause. Stand with us as we stomp out bullycide

    Peace and prayers,

    Lisa Ford-Berry

    B.R.A.V.E. (Bullies Really Are Violating Everyone)

    [email protected]

  2. I was a little disappointed with Lisa Ford-Berry's comment, until I read the phrase "Parents of the victims and the perpetrators both expect the schools to do something, and yet we as a society do nothing."

    As the principal of a school, I have expelled one student resently for cyberbullying. In this insatnce, the bullying was donne outside school but because we have signed agreements with all parents, students and staff, we were able to take action. It was not a first offence. I doubt that such action could have been taken in many countries.

    Too many of us blame schools and putting the onus back onto them is convenient but not realiaistic. While bullying does occur at school (show me a school without it, or a workplace for that matter), in my experience, at my school anyway, most instances occur outside school. What does society expect shools to do. Where is parental responsiblilty in all this?

    Once again, schools becomes the cure all for society's ills, the ecoonomy, crime, bad manners and use of the Internet. Whilst most schools run courses on appropriate use of electronic media, the reality is that much of the misues is perpetrated outside school.

    If parents allow they children to have such devices then they too should be responsible for educating their children in their proper use.

    I have had parents when, faced with the fact that their child has been the perpetrator of such abuse, turn arund and says that it wasn't that bad or he didn't mean to hurt anyone or it's just kids being kids.

    Surely they, parents, have some responsibility to monitor their child's use of the digital highway. But the truth is it that many of them don't take responsibility because they either don't care or they are afraid to (their child might not like them or might do something to them) or they don;t see the problem.

    Let's not blame schools for all of society's problems, schools are very much responding to change rather than being the agents of change.

    Let's make sure that everyone, including friends, parents, schools and the legislators keep up with the advance of communication and treat breches with the seriousness they deserve. There must be some way of making these actions illegal, if they are not already.

    Prevention is better than cure because sometimes there is no cure, it's too late.

  3. "But the harm that results will, in some cases, become an important determinant of the appropriate punishment."

    Yes — but is that not already the case? When a mere statement leads to a fatality, and the rules on homicide kick in?

    Good discussion.

  4. You need to start holding social networks somewhat accountable if they refuse to remove messages and set up ways to curb cyberbullying (a lot more can be done) A perfect example is the cyberhate site Topix. Their numerous forums are not moderated (how irresponsible can a company be) and they don't require registration meaning an attack occurs basically every second of the day. That company should be held to the fire.

    Here's a good site to consider about their business practices:

  5. I have been victim of both cyberbullying, and real bullying, and there is one clear difference in the two. Cyberbullying can be escaped with the click of a mouse. (The obvious answer to this is that people still see the bullying happen, and something said is still not negated). The reason conventional bullying is so harmful is that almost always, you can't just escape in a half second and not have to come back ever again. The bully is physically present and usually, in school, there is no way out. That is why it hurts so much, beacuse once you realize what's happening, they can do even more damage. Also there is the fact that people are laughing at you in person. Cyberbullying, though its immediate effects undoubtedly reach into the real world, is easily countered with even the smallest amount of awareness in the victim, and the ability to click away from the website and go somewhere else. Plus, cyberbullying alone was never enough to drive someone over the edge. The personal factor, and the real contact that accompanies it is the problem which we should face. (Also, I am in the mentioned national debate league, and am prepared to argue any side of this issue[you don't know what side you will be assigned before youre in the room competing])

    • yes, i have to do a topic debating on this, and this REALLY helped me. My side is the side that you are on. I completely agree with you, and this is why I can see you are in the debate league. Thank you so much, and i will give you credit.

  6. I am a debater, and in researching this topic, I came across this page. My personal opinion is that throwing people in jail is not the way to solve this problem. ESPECIALLY if most of the perpetrators are kids, and they feel that this is an acceptable way to express their feelings, then they need HELP, not a jail cell. Many of the perpetrators are hugely insecure themselves, and I think that the guilt caused by knowing that they were responsible for the death of an individual that they LIKELY KNOW PERSONALLY is enough punishment without forsaking their lives forever. I realize where the hurt parents are coming from, as I have also had to deal with the trauma of almost losing a loved one due to mental illness. However, I think that the way we will solve this problem is through public awareness and standing up for eachother, not just making a law and hoping that things will magically change.

  7. Cyber bullying should absolutely not be a criminal offense, especially if it is on the computer. If the perpetrator is not physically harming you, if absolutely should not be a reason to put someone in jail for. Sometimes, people will come and be a jerk to you for no reason. All you have to do is just ignore that. As many people always say "Don't feed the internet troll". Most of the time however, these attacks are most of the time brought on upon ones self. That's right. Most times out of all the times people actually get cyber bullied, people bring it upon themselves. I have a good suggestion for that. Get off the internet! If you can't take a little harassment on the internet for saying the things you say, then maybe you shouldn't be on the internet at all and if you're being threatened by someone you know, either tell someone that isn't the police or just wait it out and see what happens. I honestly don't see what the big deal here is. We've all been cyber bullied at one point or another and many of us have dealt with it perfectly fine. It's just the tragic stories we hear about that make us want to make it illegal. Just like the child molestation stories that happen once every few months that make parents want to hide their kids in their basement until they're 18. >_>

    • Your comments are absurd. First of all, no one should have to walk away from an Internet blog just because one or two cyber bullies are out of control. Secondly, where are your stats to back up the claim that most victims were “asking for it”? I’ve been posting on political forums for years and have learned to deal with the personal attacks by ignoring them but sometimes a cyber bully crosses the line and starts with threats of violence and intrusion into social networks for information on that person’s family, leading to very serious on that person and/or his family.

  8. Alexander the Cybullying issue cannot be escaped. You said:

    "I have a good suggestion for that. Get off the internet! If you can’t take a little harassment on the internet for saying the things you say, then maybe you shouldn’t be on the internet at all and if you’re being threatened by someone you know, either tell someone that isn’t the police or just wait it out and see what happens."

    Students are required to access the internet in order to study and to stay up to date in a society like we exist in today. Schools require computer use, you cant stop using it because someone harmed you. People arent given the protection of a law in this situation as of this moment so people must take it and keep on. This site states that over 20% of students tested in a survey have experianced cyberbullying. Just admitting it means that you havnt completely let it go. If we were to go by your suggestion that would mean 20% of students shouldnt use the internet because they have been bullied.

    What about Cell Phone bullying? That also falls under the realm of cyberbullying and you cannot control what you recieve. Recieving unwanted material shouldnt make you stop using a cell phone. Most Teenagers own a cell phone and again those 20% shouldnt stop using them because they were bullied. I say that a law should be put in place or some other action be taken. We cant be harsh to the students and children of today by telling them, tough you got bullyed and it made you mad…then nno more internet for you and you might as well hand us your cell phone too.

  9. alexander i agree with kevin but kevin what if instead of a law put in to place since a law would only cover the united states and this is a global topic shouldnt the website censor what goes on their website. just talking about online cyber bullying isnt it in the site's best interest to regulate what is posted on thier site? ( like facebook people can accuses somthing of being bad) is that not true in whcih case should we still put a law in place?

  10. Yah I was trying to put it in the view of Americans, since we relate to that best. As to that, thats one of my best rebutals. Will wait to see if anyone gets it.

  11. When does one person's right to freedom of speech become more important than preventing harassment? Why is it okay to spew hate and maliciousness online, when it is not okay to do so in-person? Widespread internet use is relatively new. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of discovering the effects it has on our mind, body, and way of life. Many users are psychologically tied to their online communities. Oftentimes, these communities are at least as real as their physical communities, sometimes more so. Expecting people to abandon their communities due to bullying or to blame victims for not withstanding a barrage of verbal abuse, in my opinion, is a solution that does not address the problem and, therefore, not a real solution.

    • i think people being psychologically tied to online communities is a part of the problem. society is becoming attached to the internet in a way that’s incredibly unhealthy. especially with social networking sites like facebook. and that unhealthy attachment is as much of a problem as anything negative that happens on them. as such, abandoning those communities might be what needs to happen for some who simply cannot handle the range of what takes place.

      they are only online communities, after all. they should not be elevated to the status of say your school or hometown where you “should not have to abandon” them and i think doing so just contributes to the problem of children and adults placing too much emotional investment in them.

      there’s nothing wrong with pulling yourself out of a negative environment or walking away from a negative situation. if we say this is true for offline, why not for online?

      if we encourage kids being approached by a bully at school to walk away from the fight and tell someone about it, why would we not encourage kids online to walk away from a website or a chatroom or email when being harassed? especially when that SHOULD, if their attachment to it is a healthy one, be far easier than turning their back on a confrontation in person?

      it’s perfectly healthy for a child to fear turning his back on a bully that is right in his face and to feel pressured or shamed by all of the eyes on him from the peers surrounding them, some who may even be shouting and egging them on. that is an incredibly stressful situation that should not be comparable in emotional or psychological intensity to simply clicking the X on a web browser.

      the fact that being in a physical space where you may literally not have the ability to remove yourself from the situation, like if a group of bullies ganged up on you in the bathroom blocking the door, could be likened to an inability to stop reading what’s being said to or about you or your friends is very troubling to me and this is a major part of the nation’s anti-cyberbullying kick that isn’t being addressed.

      the psychology behind cyberbullying VICTIMS and how that psychology is in many ways the same as what drives the cyberbullies themselves. the inability to look away, like staring at a collision on the road. the fear of not being a part of something everyone else engages in. the need to feed into the cyberbullying, often by becoming cyberbullies themselves, and why.

      these are questions i fear won’t be asked let alone answered because no one wants to admit that there’s anything a victim can do to prevent or cease being a victim. sometimes, that’s true, but many times, in the case of cyberbullying, it’s not. many victims choose to continue spectating and engaging their bullies, which we all know contributes to the bullies desire to continue bullying, and it becomes a cycle that escalates.

      a family movie called cyberbully was the first i saw to actually address this and there needs to be more. a girl joined a website like facebook and during the course of the movie, a girl who is mean to her at school made some negative comments about her on her page. if i think i remember she ignored it at first. i don’t remember if they made it so she couldn’t delete comments from her page.

      she was finally upset by it and told her mother. at that point, the comments were what is unfortunately considered common and harmless “cattiness” between the popular girl and the unpopular girl but that’s usually how it starts and when you have the choice of diffusing things or escalating them.

      the girl’s mother instructed her to delete her account from that website and not to visit it again because it wasn’t appropriate for her anyway. the girl said she would. instead, she went back onto the website to read more of the comments being made about her, then posted mean comments back and called the other girl names.

      of course, it escalated. when her mother found out, she scolded her for not doing deleting the account so she took the girls laptop away. of course, the girl was, like many youth and adults these days, too addicted to the activities on the internet so she went to her best friend’s house and demanded to use her computer so she could go back onto the website.

      all throughout the movie, she continued this against her mother’s wishes. at some point, even her best friend started to deny her access to her devices to go on the internet because it was just making things worse but the girl refused to listen. it became an obsession for her just like it was for the ones who bullied her.

      the movie threw in a bunch of twists and turns that i think are also important to see like her brother hacking into her account to change her profile to say dirty things and her best friend at one point pretending to be some guy from another school to get her friend to like her, etc.

      but the point is that this girl who eventually got to the point of trying to swallow pills and kill herself CONTRIBUTED to it getting to that point. even after her suicide attempt, the first thing she asked for when she woke up was her laptop so that she could log on to the website again.

      i’m by no means saying that the bullying was her fault. i am saying that especially in the case of cyberbullying, there are methods of avoiding or lessening it that many youth simply don’t take because they’re just as fixated on internet culture as the ones who exploit it and many of these people who become victims themselves engage in or don’t speak out against cyberbullying against others.

      most solutions don’t address the problem but they may lower the statistics of those who fall VICTIM to the problem and in the end, that’s the only attainable goal here. ending bullying is NOT an attainable goal any more then ending prostitution. people targeting others with hostility is as old as the oldest profession and it has a place everywhere from the schoolyard to politics government and war. the internet is just one more on the list.

      teaching kids and adults better ways to fight against it or to remove themselves from the equation if they can’t is definitely a better than encouraging kids to hold on to their online communities for dear life when that may very well COST them their life.

  12. This like many other cases shows how kids face terrible consequences for doing things that they do not know are wrong. An 8th graded received a nude picture of a girl sent by his friend. He did not mind deleting; he honestly did not think anything wrong about it. There was a big controversy at school and the school police officers found this picture in these boys’ cell phone. They now face charges and the likelihood to be registered as sex offenders. This story made me really sad because i honestly believe the boys were not doing anything wrong. I mean yea they did, but not extremely like that to face what they are facing. This is why it is important to educate our young population; there are many things that do not seem to be wrong but they are and they bring many irreversible consequences. I believe articles like this one show be discussed at school and homes. I believe this is a good way to educate our kids.,,2…

  13. Cyber bullying is a very serious issue. More with younger kids I would think and as kids start using the computer and internet at a younger age I would imagine that cyber bullying is just getting worse. It's such a serious issue because young children are so impressionable and care so much about what their peers think of them. Also cyber bullying could be more dangerous then real bullying because usually with face to face bullying other people see what is going on. Maybe a kid gets beat up once, but then action will be taken and it will stop happening. With cyber bullying could happen every day and a child might not want to tell their parents or a teacher because they are embarrassed or worried. I know that cyber bullying went on when I was in high school and I can only imagine how bad it is for some kids going through high school and even middle school now.

  14. I am doing a paper on cyber bullying and was curious to make sure that all of your information is legitimate and I can cite your website in a paper.

  15. I think that it should be a criminal offense and not just if the person commits suicide because then the bully had won i think we should stop it before it gets to that point.

  16. Not criminal? How is it not a crime that someone is tortured on the internet, and then they end up dead? How is it not a crime to drive teens to their deaths, and not letting up until they have no one left to harass? You would think that this would be something worth putting a stop to, but it’s apparently not a crime. So there is no criminal punishment for it. Maybe if people would get their heads out of the clouds and would realize that kids die all the time over this, they would see the criminal qualities of the actions taken that drive these kids over the edge.

  17. It shouldnt be a criminal offense. The intentions of anyone are the internet are not easy found. Its so easy to take something wronger than what it was intended to be ment as. Millions of dollars would be wasted making it a criminal offense.

    • Exactly! i mean, is it really that severe? people kill themselves over insecurities, not over people. you dont say oh, im going to kill myself because of this person. no. you kill yourself over words. its a lack of self-confidence. it should be punished, but not that severely.

  18. I am currently being cyber bullied and I do think that it should be a criminal offense.
    for 2 years ever since I graduated highschool I have been harrassed online and it started on facebook and started to spread. people post photos of me and spread rumors. I’ve been threatened and insulted and i did have the police involved but they wouldnt do anything for me. last night they started to post pictures and personal information about me and i have no idea where they get all of it from or who.
    they manage to hack into my personal emails and always manage to get my phone number. I’ve changed my number over 10 times and its a really big problem. I just want them to stop and to leave me alone. I can’t walk out of my house now without someone saying something hurtful to me. I try to ignore it but sometimes it’s really hard. someone really needs to put a stop to this, I lost a friend from being bullied so much and I know how he felt and why he did it.

  19. this shuldnt be a severe crime. its over the internet if they have a problem with cyberbullying just get off the computer. just becauise ttens kill their self over bullying dont mean nothing . thats on their body if they want to kill theirself which is stupid.

  20. I have to agree with Brandon.P……… As long as there are no cops around and no one is injured, everything is legal , pretty much. Not to mention the waste of tax $$$$$$.

  21. Cyber bullying should not be a crime. To an extent we all cyber bully at least once in our lives. May it be by accident or on purpose, do you think the people who accidentally offended someone should go to court. Maybe you say something that is heard a different way to others. If you say, “Meet me in 5 or else.” You could mean it in a fun, playful, or joking way. On the other hand people could see it as a threat and report it. To the kids who do cyber bully will probably be reported and dealt with. Just because you call someone names, or say something mean on accident doesn't mean you should go to court or jail.

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