The Major Problem With New York’s Cyberbullying Bill
What would you do if you found out your child might face time in juvenile detention for a few mean comments posted online? The question itself seems shocking; parents and non-parents alike would agree that the punishment seems a little extreme. And yet, in early June, the New York State Senate officially put just that into law. Here excerpted, it reads:
“Any person who knowingly engages in a repeated course of cyberbullying of a minor shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by a period of imprisonment not to exceed one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Despite outlining startling consequences for cyberbullies, the legislation doesn’t specify what offenders would need to do to become criminally liable. Most people get the gist: cyberbullying occurs when one or more people harass or abuse another person using electronic means. But what does that mean from a prosecutor’s standpoint? Is a “repeated course of cyberbullying” two mean texts, four malicious Facebook posts, or an all-out campaign across multiple social platforms? Where do we draw the line — and how do we determine when someone crosses it?
Moreover, the sole point the legislation makes clear — the protection of minors — only raises more questions. It’s simple enough to make a swift and severe judgment call when an adult bullies a minor online, but the situation is less cut-and-dried when both parties are young. Does an accused minor’s age make a difference? Would we prosecute a twelve-year-old with the same severity we would a seventeen-year-old? The answers to these questions remain unanswered.
My aim here isn’t to undermine the legislature’s noble intentions, but simply to point out that this bill’s pervasive vagueness renders it ineffective as a legal deterrent.
In 2014, a similarly unclear anti-cyberbullying law in Albany County fell under scrutiny from the New York State Supreme Court. The published rationale behind limiting the 2014 language argued that the wording was undefined to the point of making it difficult to enforce; a child’s prank call to an adult could constitute — and legally face severe punishment for — cyberbullying. As a result of this case, the current definition for the term includes “only three types of electronic communications sent with the intent to inflict emotional harm on a child: (1) sexually explicit photographs; (2) private or personal sexual information; and (3) false sexual information with no legitimate public, personal or private purpose.” Given that the 2018 bill does not define cyberbullying beyond the referenced text here, it’s unlikely to hold up any more sustainably or effectively than its predecessor.
Now, this definition works well enough in cases where sexually explicit content is a factor — but what if it isn’t? How do we protect the children who have to handle endless texted cruelty, social media hate, and online harassment?
These questions are what make the vagueness of Senate Bill S2318A so frustrating. Bullying, both online and in-person, is an epidemic in our schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that a full 34% of students in a nationally-representative sample reported experiencing repeated and intentional harassment and mistreatment via cell phones or other electronic devices. That’s a horrifying number, especially once you consider that kids who experience cyberbullying often struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness as a result — typically for long after they leave school. Kids who bully don’t get away scot-free either; many carry the abusive behaviors they develop during school into their adult relationships and fall into substance abuse patterns.
Cyberbullying is a destructive force in today’s schools, and our kids deserve more than a vague half-measure that, despite providing severe consequences, falls short of defining what “cyberbullying” is in the eyes of the law. The intention behind this recent legislation was good-hearted and well-meant, but we can do better.