Is Cyberbullying a Crime? What Can Victims Do?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on March 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A 17-year-old North Carolina is facing cyberbullying charges after posting a nude photo of a 15-year-old girl to Instagram, CNN reports. The incident raises the question: Just when does cyberbullying turn criminal?

Here's an overview of cyberbullying statutes and what you can do when confronted by cyberbullying:

1. Can cyberbullying be criminal?

Nineteen states now have cyberbullying-specific laws on the books, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center; 14 states impose criminal sanctions for cyberbullying. Definitions of criminal cyberbullying and corresponding penalties vary by state, but generally speaking, the laws encompass acts of online harassment -- words or images sent via email, texts, or social media that are intended to intimidate or embarrass another person -- and typically categorize the offense as a misdemeanor. The penalty may also be age-specific. For example, the 17-year-old student from North Carolina faces a Class 2 misdemeanor under the state's criminal cyberbullying statute; if the defendant is over 18, the offense is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina.

2. What can you do?

According to a new survey, three out of four surveyed parents reported incidents of cyberbullying typically to "friends, school, relatives, law enforcement, and church or clergy." If you become aware of an act of cyberbullying, your first step may be to notify school authorities. If the situation is serious, you may even want to involve law enforcement. In such a case, make sure to give law enforcement copies of the bullying messages or images.

3. How can a lawyer help?

With the assistance of an attorney, parents may be able to sue for cyberbullying as an alternative way of reaching parents, school authorities, or law enforcement when other more direct paths prove fruitless -- especially in a state without a cyberbullying statute in place, as Yahoo! Shine reports. The field of cyberbullying-related litigation is still evolving, but there are now examples of victims and their families suing cyberbullies. Before filing a lawsuit, however, perhaps your attorney can write a strongly worded demand letter to a school (or parent) that is slow to respond to cyberbullying.

To learn more about how the law can help in your personal cyberbullying case, check out our page on Cyberbullying. Parents of cyberbullying victims may also want to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss your options.

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