Cyberbullying 101

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With a lot of the attention in the media focused on horrific bullying cases, I thought it was important for us to step back and take a black and white approach to sharing the basics of cyberbullying, and why coming up with a solution to end cyberbullying involves so many complications.  These complications have put it in the hands of us parents and our own children to make bullying stop whether it’s offline or online.

Much of what I’m sharing with you is credited to the great work published by Judge Tom Jacobs in his book: Teen Cyberbullying Investigated.  I highly recommend this book both as an educational tool for yourself and family, as well as an educational tool to be used with students.

When an issue is important to our families—our faith, our values and our beliefs—we don’t wait for the government to teach our children, nor do we necessarily rely on laws to protect our children. We teach our children ourselves so that we can instill our beliefs. Consider including bullying in this category.

Be the first to say to your children, as I do mine: Be kind online.

The Basics of Cyberbullying:

Most cases involve kids and teens, though there have been instances of cyberbullying between adults.

  • Much of the time it’s done anonymously.
  • Sadly, cyberbullying can occur as early as 2nd grade.

Most common forms of cyberbullying:

  • Sending insulting or threatening e-mail, text, social networks, or instant message using a cell phone or computer.
  • Spreading hateful comments about someone.
  • Stealing passwords and sending out threatening messages using a false identity.
  • Building a website targeting specific people – aka “hate site”.

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, keeping up with everyday-changing, fast-paced technology can be a tough job for anyone.  It’s getting harder for lawmakers, educators and parents to keep up with all of the different tools that can be used to bully someone online.  This struggle is mirrored in the many laws, acts and court cases that surround cyberbullying and cyberharassment.

What’s being done, and what’s been done…so far:

Federal Law Pending:

Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act – LINK

  • Imposes criminal penalties on anyone who uses electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior towards another person to coerce, harass or cause severe emotional distress.

Based on my research, I am not optimistic that this law will pass.  Apparently since its introduction by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California) to a House Judiciary subcommittee, members from the left (and the right) concluded that the measure was an unconstitutional breach of free speech.

“We need to be extremely careful before heading down this path,” Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia and the committee’s chairman, said during the hearing’s opening moment.

Sanchez has stated that the bill is not to “override Supreme Court jurisprudence” when it comes to the First Amendment right of free speech, but would give “Prosecutors should have a tool at their disposal.”

Sanchez also believes cyberbullies need to be prosecuted“Bullies are using technology in ways we could not have imagined only years ago, and studies show that outdated and erroneous beliefs that bullying is ‘harmless’ downplay its true seriousness”, she wrote.

Apparently, the bill goes beyond cyberbullying.  The methods of communication where hostile speech is banned include e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.

And Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) has been quoted as saying: it “appears to be another chapter of over-criminalization.”

No matter how you feel about a law being in place or not, it’s up to us parents to be proactive and remind our children that bullying is wrong altogether, whether it’s in person or online.

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Federal Law already in place:

Protecting Children in 21st Century Act –

  • Requires public schools to educate students about cyberbullying, online safety, and sexual predators.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Public Service Advisement (PSA) campaign.

Granted, I’m no lawyer, just a parent, but I had no idea about this law. I have five children in school and I’ve only learned once that their school was teaching Internet safety.

Just last week, my 4th grader told me “the librarian talked to us about Internet safety, but Mom, she didn’t say anything about sexting and being a bully and I told her what you told me.”  I am proud of him for speaking up, but I wish I knew about the librarian talk beforehand so that I could reinforce what he was learning at school, at home.

The First Amendment:

  • In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1st Amendment provides protection for Internet speech that is reasonable under the circumstances.

The Problem:

  • The Supreme Court’s ruling, at the time, was not directed toward minors, but it is now going under review.
  • The official limits to student electronic communication has not been decided, including:
    • Ramifications of cell phone use at school, text messaging, and other forms of digital communication.

As parents and educators stand by and wait, states have implemented their own laws, some more effective than others.  Technology moves way too fast, and I’m concerned that our laws can’t keep up.

Here’s a look at how State laws vary specific to cyberbullying:  Just a few…

  • California– A student may be suspended or expelled for cyberbullying via electronic device, ONLY if the bullying occurred during school hours or at a school-related activity.
    • In my opinion, this is not an effective state law due to the growing number of cyberbullying cases that take place off school grounds which always lead back to what’s happening ON campus. Administrators I’ve spoken to in my home state are impaired by this law and are overwhelmed by the lack of what they can do.
  • Florida– Includes discipline for off-campus cyberbullying if it affects a student’s performance or disrupts the school.
    • A much more effective and realistic law. Just like the Internet world, a student’s life these days is online, offline, on campus, and off campus. They’re all intertwined.  This is a state law that California lawmakers should probably consider.
  • Rhode Island– First offense of electronic harassment is a misdemeanor, second is a felony.
    • Rhode Island is making a strong point with this law, and rightfully so. 

Take note that a court’s decision affects only those within its jurisdiction. So, just because Rhode Island or Massachusetts settles a case one way, it may mean NOTHING to your state.

Now that we know the laws are all over the place, don’t be surprised to find that the consequences of previous cases vary dramatically!

Cyberbullying Cases – Varying Consequences: A glimpse into other state laws.


  • Case: (J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 2002, Pennsylvania.)  A website was created with personal attacks against school faculty.   “Welcome to Teacher Sux”
  • Charge: threatening physical harm to a teacher and principal.
    • If the harassment constituted a true threat, (serious intent to inflict harm) the speech would not be protected and the student could be punished.
    • If not a true threat, yet still proved to disrupt the school, the student can be punished, regardless of where content was created.
  • The student was permanently expelled and the First Amendment claim was denied because the court decided the site was disruptive at school, and that the impact on the student body all contributed to disorder and substantial interference with the work at school.


  • Case: (I.M.L. v. State of Utah, 2002.)  A website was created containing negative statements about principal and teachers.  “Mr. Smith is a town drunk and sleeping with the school’s secretary.”
  • Charge: criminal libel; publishing false statement with cruel intent.
    • Site contained no threats of violence, however, the person knowingly lied with intent to harm, and thus that person cannot claim protection under the First Amendment.
    • The libel law that the defendant charged with was outside the bounds of the Constitution.
  • The student was arrested, sent to a detention center, and charged with criminal libel. 
  • The charge was ultimately dismissed.

“The mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the world-wide web. Public schools are vital institutions, but their reach is not unlimited. Schools have an undoubted right to control conduct…but they must share the supervision of children with other, equally vital, institutions such as families…”


  • Case: (Gregory Requa v. Kent School District, 2007, Washington.) Creating a lewd and offensive video of a teacher in the classroom. “Caution: Booty Ahead”.
  • Student used his cell phone to take an unauthorized video of his teacher from behind as she was walking and bending over, without her knowledge.  One shot featured a third student standing behind her making faces and pelvic thrusts in her direction.
    • The school board found that the defendant’s acts constituted sexual harassment in violation of the schools policy.
    • The student claimed that production and posting of a video to YouTube, and link from his social networking page, was protected speech; school maintained discipline for conduct (video creation) and not his speech (off-campus editing/posting.)
  • The school imposed a 40-day suspension on the student, which could be cut in half if a research paper was completed.  The suspension was upheld by the court.

It seems every generation of parents said what my parents did: “Raising kids was never as tough as it is now. My parents didn’t have it this tough”.  I believe our generation of parents (and educators) actually do have a greater challenge raising and educating kids today, due in part to technology and other socio-economic issues.

As beneficial as technology is, the downside can be that the awkward social struggle of middle school and high school for some students is made much worse because of technology negligence. Whether it’s because of a specific website where kids post anonymously about others, or mean text messages, these are all forms of bullying that present a greater challenge for our families to deal with.

Parents, here’s what you can do to contribute to a solution:  K.I.D.S.

  • Knowledge – Share what you know about Internet Safety and social networking safety.
  • Inform & Educate – Share proactively with other parents.
  • Dialogue – Dialogue. Dialogue. Keep consistent dialogue in school & at home with your kids.
  • Safety first – Real-world standards must be applied online.

How to Bully-Proof Your Child:

  1. Start the talk now! So start talking to your child about bullying before it ever happens. Tell your child you are always available and recognize it is a growing problem. You want your child to come to you and not suffer in silence.
  2. Stop rescuing. Children need practice to speak up and be assertive so when the moment comes that they do need to stand up to a bully, they can. Always rescuing can create the conditions under which a child can become a victim.
  3. Avoid areas where bullies prey. Bullying usually happens in unsupervised adult areas such as hallways, stairwells, playgrounds (under trees and equipment, in far corners), lockers, parks and bathrooms in places such as malls, schools, parks and even libraries. Teach your child about “hot spots” (places most likely to be frequently by bullies), and then tell him to avoid those areas.
  4. Offer specific tips. Most kids can’t handle bullying on their own: they need your help, so provide a plan. For instance, if bullying is happening on the bus tell your child to sit behind the bus driver on the left side where the driver can see passengers in the mirror, ask an older kid to “watch out” for your child, or offer to pick your child up from school.
  5. Teach assertiveness. Kids less likely to be picked on, use assertive posture. Stress to your child that he should stand tall and hold his head up to appear more confident and less vulnerable. Practice. Practice. Practice!
  6. Stay calm and don’t react. Bullies love knowing they can push other kids’ buttons, so tell your child to try to not let his tormentor know he upset you.
  7. Teach a firm voice. Stress to your child that if he needs to respond, simple direct commands work best delivered in a strong determined voice: “No.” “Cut it out.” “No way.” “Back off.” Then walk away with shoulders held back.
  8. Get help if needed. Tell your child to walk towards other kids or an adult.
  9. Find a supportive companion. Kids who have even one friend to confide in can deal with bullying better than those on their own. Is there one kid your child can pair up with? Is there a teacher, nurse, or neighbor he can go to for support? You may need to go to the teacher and principal and advocate!
  10. Don’t make promises. You may have to protect your child, so make no promises to keep things confidential. You may have to step in and advocate. Do so if ever your child’s emotional or physical safety is at stake.

A story of inspiration:

One of the pillars of Yoursphere is to engage kids in positive online activities that promote proper Internet etiquette.  Through these activities, we strive to teach kids to “be kind online” and to treat their friends with respect.

Recently, a young girl joined Yoursphere and created a sphere called “The Bully-Free Zone”.

Bullying sphere

In the sphere, she stated that she was, in fact, a victim of bullying—probably why she created the sphere to begin with.

As a result, a bunch of Yoursphere members started joining the sphere and contributing their feelings and comments on bullying.  The dialogue is inspiring:

‘LuvsAnimals’ you are beautiful! Don’t let anyone get you down!

I agree!  Everyone is beautiful in their own ways.  It sounds cliché but it is so true.  I used to get bullied too but then I stopped caring and now it is much better.

If people have problems with bullies or anything, I hope they will come to this sphere and talk to us about it!

I hate bullies, but this is a good idea for a sphere!  We need to stick up for all those kids who are harassed, and don’t know that Yoursphere is put there! Let’s spread the word!

When I first saw this sphere, I was so overwhelmed by the emotional support that these kids were giving our member, or anyone who was bullied for that matter.

Is it just as simple as it appears? Give kids the platform, support their interests, and reinforce positive messaging and behavior? Early signs tell me yes.

Seeing Yoursphere kids come together for such a great cause made me smile and reinforced my optimism that collectively we can decrease instances of bullying.

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