By Judge Tom Jacobs, author of What Are My Rights? Q&A About Teens and the Law (Revised & Updated 4th Edition)
Content Note: Includes descriptions of sexual harassment, ableist bullying, and suicide.
The headline says it all:
According to the more than 1,000 parents who were surveyed, more than half of their children experienced bullying before the age of 19. And nearly half of the reported bullying incidents were through the internet or social media.
Even though society frowns upon all forms of bullying, cyber abuse is particularly offensive due to its ubiquity and potential for harm. Every cyberbullying case is deeply personal for the person who is targeted. In some tragic cases, the pain of being cyberbullied has led to suicide.
Consider 18-year-old Jessica Logan, a high school senior in Ohio. She sent her boyfriend a nude cell phone picture of herself, a practice commonly referred to as sexting. After they broke up, he sent the photo to other students at their school. Jessica was harassed and taunted, which led to depression and absence from school. Two months later, Jessica hanged herself in her bedroom.
Jessica wasn’t the first person to succumb to “bullycide.” Children as young as eight years old have ended their lives out of fear, frustration, and loneliness.
Cyber abuse knows no limits with regards to location, gender, or age. It is a 24/7 global phenomenon. A September 2019 United Nations poll showed that a third of young people reported being a victim of online bullying. What’s more, teens become adults who enter the workplace, where cyberbullying doesn’t necessarily end.
An example is Ralph Espinoza, a California corrections officer at juvenile hall. Espinoza was born with no fingers or thumb on his right hand. He was generally able to function, although limited in performing some tasks. He was self-conscious about people seeing his hand and often kept it in his pocket.
Coworkers referred to Espinoza as “rat claw,” and the word claw was written in several places in the workplace. Coworkers created a blog where one of them posted, “I will give anyone 100 bucks if you get a picture of the claw. Just take your hand out of your pocket already!” The blog could be accessed from work computers. After a coworker alerted Espinoza to the blog, he began to monitor it.
Espinoza reported these incidents to his supervisors, with no response. Coworkers were not interviewed, and no formal investigation was conducted even though 15 suspects were named. Espinoza suffered physical and emotional trauma from these events, and a doctor diagnosed him with high blood pressure, insomnia, and depression. He filed a complaint against the county and others based on his disability, harassment, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A jury found the county liable for having knowledge of the harassment and failing to take remedial action to correct it. Total damages awarded Espinoza came to $820,700.
Parents and educators must be vigilant in their efforts to recognize, identify, and educate their children and students about cyber abuse. However, since teens are generally ahead of their parents and teachers when it comes to digital devices and platforms, adults are at a disadvantage when trying to monitor their kids online. Many kids have second or third accounts unbeknownst to their parents, or they are using platforms that adults aren’t aware of. That is where the danger exists.
Experts recommend regular, honest discussions with kids about all things internet. There are many resources to learn about the subject, including Stopbullying.gov, the Cyberbullying Research Center, and the Trevor Project.
Cyberbullying is a legal as well as a social problem. But in most cases, litigation should be a last resort when confronted with an incident of abuse. Use education, diversion, and alternative dispute resolution to achieve satisfactory, equitable, and timely results. At the forefront in the effort to curb cyber abuse are parents, educators, and law enforcement. Together, our kids will survive their adolescence and develop into responsible, caring adults.
Thomas A. Jacobs, J.D., was an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1972 to 1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges. Visit Judge Jacobs’s website AsktheJudge.info for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens.
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