“every1 will be happy if u died”
“nobody cares about u”
“you seriously deserve to die”
The comments above are just a sampling of actual messages sent to 14-year-old Hannah Smith and 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick before each girl took her own life. It’s hard to believe children could be so cruel to one another, but given the trend of younger and younger children gaining access to social media and mobile devices, the scourge of cyber-bullying will likely get much worse before it gets better.
The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center estimates that nearly 30 percent of American youth are either a bully or a target of bullying. However, bullying is no longer a problem that is isolated to the playgrounds, hallways, and lunch rooms of schools. Instead, advances in technology have now extended harassment to cell phones, social media websites, and other online avenues that are contributing to an alarming number of cyber-bullying cases leading to suicide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people with approximately 4,400 deaths each year. The CDC estimates that there are at least 100 suicide attempts for every suicide among young people. More than 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide and nearly seven percent have attempted it.
Stories Paint a Horrifying Picture
In the past few years multiple cyber-bullying cases ended with the victims taking their own lives. Here’s just a sampling of the thousands of cases that occur each year:
Anna Block took her own life June 15, 2015—four days after her birthday. “Anna had just turned sixteen; June 11th,” said Ken Block, Anna’s father. He says she was caring and athletic. Her family and friends didn’t know she was being cyberbullied, but they think that’s the reason she took her own life. No charges were filed.
Kennedy LeRoy, 16, committed suicide in his bedroom June 12, 2015. In addition to his struggle with Asperger’s Syndrome, he also had a number of other mounting issues. The sophomore had bouts with depression as a result of relentless bullying.
His parents were left with broken hearts and a two-page suicide letter that explained his reason for committing suicide. Kennedy desired to be a martyr for others who are constantly victimized by bullies. He hoped his death would serve a purpose by making others reassess their actions before subjecting an innocent person to ridicule for the sake of a laugh. No charges were filed in this case.
Twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick took her own life by jumping from a cement plant tower in 2013 after more than a year of face-to-face and online bullying. The two girls, 12 and 14, accused of cyber-bullying Rebecca were charged with aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony.
But after weeks of investigation and analysis, thousands of Facebook messages failed to turn up enough evidence to charge the girls according to the Polk County Florida state attorney’s office. While messages revealed that the 14-year-old had insulted Rebecca and called her ugly names—the kind of bullying that some children could find emotionally crushing—the posts did not rise to the level of a crime, lawyers for the two girls said.
Tyler Clementi’s roommate during his freshman year at Rutgers University, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam in September 2010 to stream footage of Clementi kissing another man. According to the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the teenager learned through his roommate’s Twitter feed that he had become “a topic of ridicule in his new social environment.” On September 22, 2010, Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Less than a week after Clementi’s death, Ravi and Molly Wei, the hall mate whose computer Ravi used to spy on Clementi, were charged with invasion of privacy. In May 2011, Reuters reported that Wei entered a plea deal requiring that she testify against Ravi. A jury convicted Ravi on 15 criminal charges, and he earned early release 20 days after beginning a 30-day jail sentence.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Sam Laird published an article on Mashable Lifestyle detailing just how rampant and pervasive the problem of cyber-bullying has become. Consider these stats presented in the article:
- Forty-two percent of teenagers with tech access report being cyberbullied over the past year;
- Of the 69% of teens who own their own computer or smart phone, 80% are active on social media;
- The average teen sends 60 texts per day—reducing face-to-face communication skills;
- The teen texting rate is double the adult texting rate;
- Girls 14 to 17 text more—100 per day;
- 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13 years old;
- Eighty-one percent of teens say bullying online is easier to get away with;
- Three million kids per month are absent from school due to bullying;
- Twenty percent of kids cyberbullied think about suicide, and 1 in 10 attempt it;
- 4,500 kids commit suicide each year;
- Suicide is the number three killer of teens in the U.S. after car accidents and homicide.
Policies in Place to Punish Cyber-bullying
October is Bullying Prevention Month, a time when schools will build awareness about prevention of peer cruelty—offline and online. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) recommended a number of anti-bullying policies with the aim of reducing rates of bullying and cyber-bullying.
To date, 49 states have implemented anti-bullying laws, some of which are DoE-recommended. In 2013 the Congressional Research Service created a summary of state laws and their impact, noting that most tell school districts to create anti-bullying policies, but leaves it to their discretion what those policies will be.
“Many of these laws do not contain all the key components of anti-bullying legislation that the U.S. Department of Education identified as important,” it said. The researchers looked at data collected from more than 60,000 students in 25 states and said their study showed those states that followed at least one of the DoE recommendations saw a 24 percent drop in bullying and approximately 20 percent decrease in cyber-bullying.
“It’s hard to believe that about 15 years ago we didn’t have any anti-bullying laws, and now all 50 states have either an anti-bullying law or policy. Even though there’s been a lot of legislative activity related to bullying, surprisingly there has been very little research, if any, on whether these laws are actually effective in doing what they’re supposed to do, which is reduce bullying,” said lead author Mark Hatzenbuehler, associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Our study aimed to address that gap in the literature.”
Hatzenbuehler said the research still left questions to explore in terms of further reducing bullying.
“For instance, we don’t know if it’s more effective to have a definition that’s more expansive and covers all forms of bullying, or if the legislation is more effective if it targets specific forms of bullying,” he said. “We need to go back now and look at the laws in more detail to tease apart which are the most effective components and which combinations.”
The Law in North Carolina
In our state cyber-bullying is addressed under school anti-bullying policy and also in criminal court when the behavior is serious enough to have broken a law. Cyber-bullying may be charged under North Carolina’s stalking law when the bully engaged two or more acts against a targeted victim the bully knew (or should have known) would put the victim in reasonable fear for the his or her safety (or the safety of a family member or friend), or cause the victim to suffer substantial distress in fearing death, bodily injury, or continued harassment from the bully (North Carolina General Statute Ann. §14-277.3A).
North Carolina also has a specific cyber-bullying law that criminalizes using a computer to engage in one of several specified prohibited behaviors. These behaviors include creating a fake user profile or posing as a minor and communicating with or posting images or messages about a minor in order to intimidate or torment that minor or the minor’s parent (North Carolina General Statute §14-458.1).
Penalties and Sentencing Guidelines
In addition to the potential consequences imposed under school policy, a cyber bully may face fines, imprisonment, or both if convicted in criminal court for a crime stemming from the bully’s behavior.
Cyber-bullying is a class 1 misdemeanor if the defendant was 18 or older at the time of the offense, and a class 2 misdemeanor if younger than 18. Applicable penalties depend on where the defendant’s situation fits into North Carolina sentencing guidelines.
In addition to the consequences under school policy and criminal court, bullies may also face a judgment imposed by a civil court jury or judge. Victims of bullying may bring a case in civil court to recover money from the bully to pay for the harm caused by that bully’s actions. For example, a judge or jury may award the victim money to pay for therapy costs incurred as a result of the bully’s abuse. Similarly, a bully may have to pay for damage to property that resulted from his or her actions.
Cyber-bullying is a serious issue and can affect children and adults of any age. Words can be as devastating as physical abuse and can inflict great harm. Hateful actions taking place online should never be ignored—a child’s life may depend on it.
To learn about how North Carolina law applies to your unique circumstances, call one of the qualified attorneys at Greene Wilson Crow & Smith at (252) 634-9400 or visit nctriallawyers.com.
(Sources: NoBullying.com, Buzzfeed News, NBC 15 News, Inquisitr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mashable Lifestyle, Cyberbully Hotline, Congressional Research Service, Deseret News National, PEW Research, Medical News Today, JAMA Pediatrics, and CBS News.)