Is cyberbullying illegal? The answer is yes. Most states have cyberbullying laws that come with criminal charges. Additionally, you may also face civil liability and be subject to monetary penalties. Here’s a guide on cyberbullying laws and how they might affect you
What Is Cyberbullying?
The general definition of cyberbullying is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” A good cyberbullying definition also includes the different names by which this crime can be called, such as electronic bullying, e-bullying, SMS bullying, or online harassment.
Cyberbullying examples include:
- Repeated cruel texts and instant messages (IMs)
- Posting private or embarrassing photos
- Creating social media groups just to target one individual or group
- Hacking into social media or gaming accounts
- Spreading gossip and rumors online
State Cyberbullying Laws
There are no federal laws regarding online harassment, but is cyberbullying illegal in your state? In 44 states the answer is yes, and these states prosecute cyberbullying as a crime.
In states where cyberbullying isn’t a crime, statutes may still require schools to prevent bullying and protect victims in other ways, such as:
- Appropriate discipline
- Written school policies against cyberbullying
- Off-campus protection (bullying occurring outside school hours or grounds)
Another solution to online harassment is civil liability. Cyberbullying leads to other torts, which can provide monetary damages to compensate victims or their parents.
Most states group cyberbullying laws with other anti-harassment statutes. For example, Alabama’s harassment statute explicitly includes written or electronic communications.
Online harassment by itself is a misdemeanor. Penalties may include fines, imprisonment of up to one year, community service, and protective orders. If the online harassment caused more serious crimes — including assault, battery, rape, or murder — the defendant could face felony charges.
Forty-six states — except for Alabama, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and New Hampshire — require schools to conduct disciplinary procedures if a student commits an act of cyberbullying. California, for example, allows schools to suspend a perpetrator or recommend expulsion.
State laws may also allow schools to consider rehabilitation. Aside from suspension and expulsion, Texas law includes alternative education programs for the perpetrator as an option after a cyberbullying incident.
School Policy Against Cyberbullying
Every state but Montana requires schools to enact policies against bullying, including online harassment. Generally, the statutes require policies to help identify cyberbullying and create disciplinary procedures.
For example, Washington schools must designate a primary contact who implements anti-bullying policies and receives complaints. The policies must also include provisions specifically protecting transgender students and developing prevention tactics.
Texas law requires policies to specify the circumstances of cyberbullying and resulting disciplinary action. In addition to the cyberbullying incident at issue, schools must also consider intent, disciplinary history, disability, and other challenging circumstances when forming their response.
There are 25 states that allow schools to regulate off-campus behavior. The Supreme Court authorized schools to address behavior outside of school hours if the behavior involved serious threats or bullying against teachers or other students.
States with these laws generally take the same approach as the New York legislature. They recognize that most cyberbullying happens outside school hours and disrupts students’ lives and educational progress. So, the laws seek to reduce that threat and enhance student safety.
Civil Causes of Actions
Is cyberbullying illegal in your state? Even if the answer is “no,” that doesn’t mean cyberbullies escape from other consequences.
While you can’t hire an attorney to file a “cyberbullying complaint,” your issue may fall under other torts, including:
- Defamation. Slander or libel that hurts a person’s character
- Slander. Speaking false and malicious words about another person
- Libel. Written statements intended to bring ridicule, hatred, or disrespect to a person
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress. A party intentionally acts to cause another to suffer emotional distress
- Wrongful death. A possible cause of action if a loved one dies as a result of cyberbullying
Risks and Impacts of Cyberbullying
Why is cyberbullying illegal? The impacts of online bullying can be far-reaching. Laws and policies are intended to reduce those impacts and punish offenders.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, 27.2% of 14-year-olds and 27.7% of 15-year-olds reported being cyberbullied in 2021. While it’s easy to argue that bullying is nothing new, cyberbullying can have substantial impacts on victims
- Shame and embarrassment
- Losing interest in previously loved activities
- Fear and reluctance to attend school
- Anger-control problems
- Loss of sleep
- Headaches and stomach aches
Many school policies encourage kids to tell a trusted adult if they face cyberbullying. However, teenagers are often reluctant to “snitch” on their peers. So if you notice any sudden changes in your child, make sure to talk to them about cyberbullying and let them know you can help if they’re being harassed online.
If cyberbullying is a crime in your state, there’s a good chance minors could face charges in the juvenile criminal system.
When it comes to juvenile offenders, states focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Depending on the extent and impacts of cyberbullying, a minor may face:
- A stern lecture in open court
- Time in a juvenile detention facility
- Mandatory schooling, likely in an alternative setting
- Community service
- A juvenile criminal record
Parents of Juvenile Offenders
Your child may not be the only one who needs a lawyer in a cyberbullying case. Many states have parental responsibility laws, which hold parents responsible for their children’s torts and crimes. Parental responsibility laws often apply to firearm access, car accidents, property damage, and internet crimes, including cyberbullying.
If a court finds you responsible for your child’s cyberbullying, it may impose:
- Payment of all court fees and fines
- Payment of your child’s treatment, detention, and supervision costs
- Restitution payments to the victim
- Community service
- Jail time
If a court finds an adult guilty of online harassment or cyberbullying, the focus turns to punishment — not rehabilitation. Since online harassment is a misdemeanor, you may pay fines up to $1,000 and serve up to one year in prison.
Is Cyberbullying Illegal in Your State?
If cyberbullying harmed you or your child, you may need a local personal injury attorney to help you pursue damages. But if you or your child need a criminal defense attorney to address allegations of cyberbullying, this resource can help you get a criminal defense evaluation from a local attorney.