Cyberbullying is a term thrown around a lot these days. It has become the public-face of the evil of the Internet; a quasi-scapegoat for the decline in Internet freedoms. Now, I’m not saying that cyberbullying is acceptable – quite the opposite, in fact – but it seems to me that bullying is bullying, regardless of the preferred medium. Let’s take a look at this new form of online mega-evil, and see whether increased online policing will ever be able to decrease the numbers of this shockingly growing problem.
I wrote recently about protecting your social media profile, also an growing and important topic.
Now, before continuing, it’s worth knowing a few things about the phenomena; bringing into perspective the reasons for cyberbullying’s ubiquity.
Who it Affects?
An affliction of mainly young-people, many reports indicate that cyberbullying seems to be most prevalent in the secondary school age bracket, with children between the ages of around 11 and 16 suffering most (with 22% of 11-16 year olds having experienced some form of cyberbullying in the past). With a child going into secondary school, and asking to use using social media this is of great interest to me. As the internet grows, and children are logging-on at younger ages too, however, it is certainly possible to see the ages of those affected shrink.
On a legal standpoint, though, bullying is not a recognised offence under British law. It sits in the grey zone litigiously, and as there are so many factors to consider – not least the extent something much reach to be considered ‘bullying,’ I think it is unlikely that we will never see it come to pass that bullying is controllable under the law. And, as you will see, I don’t think I’d want to see such cut and dry parameters come into affect in the first place.
Here are the most important anti-bullying legislations that can be applied to cases of cyberbullying:
Protection from Harassment Act 1997
Under this legislation, cyberbullying can be prosecuted in situations where a person has been the victim of such actions on at least more than two occasions, has been harassed by an individual, or has been made to fear that violence will be ultimately used against them. In these cases, the court would commonly restrain the offender through various means, including the application of court sanctioned and police-enforced restraining orders.
Communications Act 2003
The Communications Act of 2003 is almost an umbrella like addition to the canon of legal legislation dealing with cases such as cyberbullying. The Act regulates what is considered to be ‘grossly offensive… obscene, indecent or menacing communication.’ Therefore, instances of cyberbullying certainly fall under its jurisdiction.
Malicious Communications Act 1988
Much like the above act, this Act makes it an offence to send distressing messages to an individual, whether that be through threats, things of a grossly offensive nature, or otherwise. Where this act is important in handling cases of cyberbullying, though, is that its jurisdiction falls to matters communicated in any manner, including electronically.
Public Order Act 1986
This act, as with the ones listed above, also makes it an offence to cause a person emotional harm or distress through the use of distressing, insulting or abusive means, chiefly through the use of signs or visual representation. This Act can most applicably be applied to cases where videos, images, or photographs are used to taunt victims – an Act most important considering today’s widespread use of mobile phones.
Obscene Publications Act 1959
The last major Act which has a role to play in preventing cyberbullying is the Obscene Publication Act of 1959. This legislation makes it an offence to publish, circulate, show or play any obscene article and makes it illegal to transmit that data either privately or publicly, such as over a private internet connection.
OK, so now we know the background, let’s look at actual, applicable and valid responses.
A Human Reaction
Despite how it may seem on the surface, bullying, regardless of the medium, is often a crime of no targeted intent. There are so many reasons a victim can be picked, whether that’s size, ethnicity, age etc., and even though children can be cruel, I believe everyone is a victim of their environment. It is not an appropriate response to enforce some form of Public Order against a child for being especially nasty to another. That solves absolutely 0% of the problem. Now, just to clarify, I understand how bullying can be for a child (I was bullied myself); I know just how horrible it can be, I know of the sleepless nights and the bouts of depression that come with just knowing you have to go to school tomorrow. Aside from the most heinous cases, though, often-times the victim will eventually work through it, and although the experience is a horrible one, unfortunately simply tending to and addressing the abused doesn’t stop the abuse. The only real reaction is ground-up education, aimed at both the bully and the bullied. It is not good enough to apply a strong legal reaction to a crime that can have such a long back story, inflicted by people who are more often than not at an age where they can’t properly deal with stress, depression, fear; all the things that inflict the young these days. Bear in mind too, that we have given the children this means of communication: A faceless, blameless, uncontrollable medium – one that we are all still just getting used to. There needs to be a process in place where everybody, including children, teachers, parents and online moderators know the entire process from start to finish: Not only how bullying affects the victim, but what factors turn a child into a bully in the first place. Empathy and help are the way forward, as long as applied fast enough and appropriately before any major harm is inflicted on the bullied. As soon as someone receives a threatening message, persistent trolling or any form of online abuse, the abuser needs to be immediately confronted by whomever holds authority, become educated about what they’ve done and find out what it is that compels them to behave in such a manner. There needs to be a strong, well-thought out and obvious reaction. It’s like the old idiom, ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ and the current manner of vilifying young people and using cyberbullying as a podium to reveal the evils of the Internet is quite evidently not saving a thing. Simply slapping a court-order on Billy and impounding his computer for 3 weeks doesn’t put an end to the trauma of both parties. It can provide welcome (albeit short-term) relief for the bullied, but it’s like painting over mould – it will come back.
I think bullying can fundamentally be chalked down to something of a crime of passion, much like the spate of incidents that can follow a broken-heart. Cyberbullying is something that can never be controlled through the law – a human reaction is the only thing that will ever make a difference.
If you or someone you know is being affected by cases of cyberbullying, we recommend you visit the UK bullying portal BullyingUK and read through their literature on cyberbullying. If you have exhausted every previous possibility, however, and would like to pursue a more legal line, then consult Coles-Law to have the above explained in more detail and to know exactly how one can legally react to cases of cyberbullying.