Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking in Florida
After my last blog post, Protecting Children's Privacy Online, I wanted to discuss another cyber law issue that affects children.
Bullying and harassment in schools has always been a problem. StopBullying.gov is a federal government website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides information from various government agencies on bullying. The website has a special section on cyberbullying. According to the website, social media and digital forums, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are persistent, permanent, and hard to notice by teachers and parents. Like anything on the Internet, one mean comment on any of these platforms can become viral.
Although all states have laws requiring schools to respond to bullying, many states do not include cyberbullying. Florida actually addresses cyberbullying in the Education Code.
Florida Education Code
Florida's Education Code defines “cyberbullying” as bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication, which includes, but is not limited to, electronic mail, Internet communications, instant messages, or facsimile communications.
Cyberbullying includes systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students and may involve:
1. Teasing; 2. Social exclusion; 3. Threat; 4. Intimidation; 5. Stalking; 6. Physical violence; 7. Theft; 8. Sexual, religious, or racial harassment; 9. Public or private humiliation; or 10. Destruction of property.
“Harassment” means any threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, through the use of data or computer software, or written, verbal, or physical conduct directed against a student or school employee.
It is worth noting that the statute does not make cyberbullying illegal. Rather, it requires school districts to establish anti-bullying policies with consequences, which the school district is charged with enforcing.
Possibility of Criminal Action
While cyberbullying is not illegal under the Education Code, Florida's stalking law covers “cyberstalking.” (Florida Statute, section 784.048)
Under Florida law, cyberstalking means to engage in a course of conduct to communicate, or to cause to be communicated, words, images, or language by or through the use of electronic mail or electronic communication, directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose.
A person is guilty of a misdemeanor crime if he or she willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly cyberstalks another person. Cyberstalking is a felony crime if the person engaging in it also makes a credible threat to the victim.
Bullying and Stalking in Cyberspace is Real
Earlier this year, police in Panama City Beach, Florida, charged two 12 year old middle-school students with cyberstalking after the suicide of another student. According to a CNN report, during the investigation, family and friends alerted police that the student had been a victim of cyberbullying. The police looked at cellphones and social media accounts, which led them to interview two children. Needless to say, some mean comments were made to the student.
Some children do not understand the consequences of their actions. There are many examples of children (and adults) making harassing, hateful and racist comments on social media platforms. At what point do those comments cross the line from being freedom of speech to bullying and harassment that may inflict harm?
As I wrote in my last blog, parents need to be the first line of defense to protect children from the harms of the Internet. StopBulling.gov provides some suggestions about how to avoid or dissuade cyberbullying. To minimize the risk of cyberbullying or harm from digital behavior, parents can:
Set clear expectations about digital behavior and online reputation.
Educate about the harmful effects of cyberbullying, posting hateful speech or comments, sexting, and sharing naked photos of themselves or others (including potential legal issues).
Be clear about what content can be viewed or shared.
Identify which apps are appropriate for your child’s use and which are not.
Establish rules about the amount of time that a child can spend online or on their devices.
Model positive, respectful digital behavior on your own devices and accounts.
Google, Microsoft and Apple have family products that allow parents to monitor and filter online content. The irony is that these products that allow parent monitoring are similar to the tools that hackers use to conduct unauthorized monitoring of electronic communications (but that is for another blog).
Stalking, harassment, and bullying existed before the Internet and will always be a problem. Like so many other issues, the Internet can be used for good and bad. We have to understand the benefits of the Internet and take necessary steps to prevent, avoid and discourage harmful uses of the Internet.