How cops can combat cyberbullying

The relentless nature of cyberbullying makes it one of the most oppressive and aggressive forms of bullying today

By Jenny Holt

The massive increase in the use of digital devices in recent years has led to a corresponding rise in issues concerning technology and remote communication. One of the most significant of these is cyberbullying, a widespread problem that can have all the same effects as “traditional” bullying: depression, anxiety, loneliness, insomnia, lack of interest in daily life, physical health issues, decreased academic engagement and achievement. It also creates the risk of more extreme outcomes like violent retaliation and suicide.

The CDC estimates that 15 percent of students have been cyberbullied in the last year, with a heavy weighting toward older children and teenagers. Law enforcement has an important role to play in cracking down on cyberbullying, at the community level through education and awareness and on a criminal level through dealing with infractions promptly and correctly.

The first step in countering cyberbullying is to get a thorough understanding of the scope and nature of the problem.
The first step in countering cyberbullying is to get a thorough understanding of the scope and nature of the problem.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is officially defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. Because of the intangible nature of digital evidence, the growing acceptability of anti-social online behavior among teens, and the difficulty in pinpointing an exact point of departure for unacceptable online habits, cyberbullying is notoriously tricky to address.

Yet the relentless nature of cyberbullying makes it one of the most oppressive and aggressive forms of bullying around. Even in the safety of their own bedrooms, teenagers can be targeted by their persecutors with harmful messages or images, leaving them no respite from the torment.

How does ‘sexting’ fit in?

“Sexting” or ”sex texting” is the sending or receiving of sexually explicit or sexually suggestive nude or semi-nude images or video, generally via cell phone, with estimates of prevalence ranging from 4 percent to a worrying 31 percent. Often initiated as a seemingly affectionate interaction between couples, the images can then later be used in cyberbullying attacks, stepping up the intensity and severity of the bullying, and the criminal implications of the situation.

How are officers responding to cyberbullying?

A survey undertaken by the FBI uncovered some interesting information about how law enforcement officers feel about the issue of cyberbullying. Approximately 82 percent of participants felt that cyberbullying was a significant issue which required police involvement. But one of the most striking outcomes of the research was the range of responses from officers.  The bottom line is that opinions on the severity of cyberbullying, the need for intervention by officers and the point at which police intervention was appropriate or necessary varied massively. Officers who had children under eighteen or were female reported earlier intervention rates and believed in officers taking a more active role.

There was a consensus that the issue of how to deal with cyberbullying needed to be addressed. Survey participants called for eliminating the gray area between the role of administrators and officers in handling cyberbullying, and the establishment of clearer initiatives. Over 80 percent of study participants believed they needed further training on how to respond to and prevent cyberbullying, with around 30 percent being unaware of their own state’s laws on the issue.

What can law enforcement do?

The first step in countering cyberbullying is to get a thorough understanding of the scope and nature of the problem. Crucially, you also need to be aware of your own obligations and authority on the issue, which vary from state to state. While some incidents may be an infraction of policy, others may be addressable by federal law, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; Rehabilitation Act of 1973; Civil Rights Act of 1964; or Education Amendments of 1972. Consult with your district attorney liaison to determine which existing criminal statutes apply, and keep in mind that criminal law often applies to any issues concerning stalking, coercion, sexually explicit images or the sexual exploitation of youth.

Work with others

Collaborate with school administrators to help them understand their own power in disciplining students involved in cyberbullying attacks. In most states, administrators have the right to exercise their power over students who take part in bullying outside school time if their actions are affecting the school environment in some way. Advise your local schools to adopt stringent anti-cyberbullying policies that have a clear line of consequences that correspond to the severity and frequency of the infractions. Establishing a relationship with the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force in your area is a good way to get assistance related to electronic devices, Electronic Service Providers and websites or apps that are common channels for cyberbullies.

Educate others

Encouraging your community toward a greater understanding of the issues and risks involved in cyberbullying can create a culture of transparency and compassion that helps victims of cyberbullying speak out and educates parents and caregivers about the dangers, as well as letting the bullies know that their actions haven’t gone unnoticed. Police officers should advise schools to create methods by which students can report cyberbullying without fear of reprisal, make sure there’s a clear system in place for managing these complaints and organize talks and education sessions to spread awareness.

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