Thursday, November 20, 2008

First Cyber Bullying Trial Could Set Precedent

Should people be held accountable for "cyber" bullying?

Two years ago, an unfortunate "cyber-bullying" incident led to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl. In a weird turn of events, it turns out it was the mother of another child that set up a fake MySpace social networking account and proceeded to verbally attack the girl, ultimately resulting in her taking her own life. The case is finally going to trial, and the mom now faces one count of conspiracy and three counts of illegally accessing computers.

As the first cyber-bullying trial to hit North America, the case could very well set a precedent for other similar instances that deal with virtual rather than physical bullying. Should someone be held accountable for indrectly causing harm, self-inflicted or otherwise, on another person? I'm torn on this one: while I don't believe they should be blamed entirely, I do believe that people needs to be accountable for their actions, whether they're in person or behind a computer screen.

In this case, the child was obviously in mental anguish prior to the last-straw indicent, when reportedly the mom in question, who was posing as a young boy that wanted to be her friend, said to the 13-year-old that "the world would be better off without her". According to the Associated Press, the girl had already been taking medication for ADD and depression, and her mother admitted to having even removed her bedroom door locks because she feared her daughter might injure herself. If you ask me, this is a clear sign that if the horrible message didn't push the girl over the edge, something else would have. She obviously needed serious, ongoing treatment for an obvious mental illness.

This doesn't, however, clear the vulger-typing mom of any guilt. In my opinion, bullying online is just as bad, if not worse, then doing so in person. People are liable to say much worse things behind the veil of a computer screen than they would in person, but the comments hurt just as much. The fact that the culprit was a mom - an adult who has a young girl of her own that's the same age as the victim - is absolutely appaling. But she can't be blamed for the girl's death nor prior issues. She can, however, and should suffer repercussions for something. But what?

The way I see it, we can liken virtual conversations to snail mail or crank phone calls. If someone sends you hurtful or threatening mail or constantly calls and pesters you, wouldn't this be considered harassment and warrant legal action? A restraining order of some sort? OK, so a restraining order can't really be invoked online (you could always block a person, but the damage has likely already been done by that time). But you can issue some form of punishment. It becomes even stickier, of course, when you can't really prove who was behind a computer screen and actually typing angry, hurtful, or threatening messages.

Ultimately, the punishment should be the same as if this identical incident happened except the mom was putting similarly nasty messages in the kid's mailbox (or even stuffing them in her bag at school), or speaking them via telephone. What's the difference? All we're doing today is replacing the phone or the pen and paper with the computer and keyboard. Granted these new, tech-savvy toys make bullying all the more easier to both conduct and later track.

As for prevention, another big cyber issue, online sexual predators, is already been heavily cracked down on. So maybe it's time to do the same with the issue of cyber-bullying.

Nonetheless, it'll be interesting to see how to trial pans out, and what sort of punishment is handed out in this tragic case.

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JET said...

Not only was this a mother, but a neighbor, so we can conclude that this mother would already be aware of the mental condition of the young girl. What absolute shameful behavior from an adult. I hope she gets jail time and is ostracized by her peers for the rest of her life. said...

If readers would like to find more information about cyberbullying and bullying in all forms, they are invited to visit our Websites noted below.

Bill Belsey
President, Canada
"Where you are NOT alone!"
-The world's most visited and referenced Website about bullying
"Always on? Always Aware!"
-The world's first Website about cyberbullying
"Learn to be the change!"
-Offering online courses and Webinars about bullying and cyberbullying
"Prevention through education and awareness"
-The official Website of the annual Bullying Awareness Week"

Anonymous said...

problem is the trial isnt about cyberbullying, its about unauthorized use of a computer and using it to 'lie' or 'pretend to be someone else'.

if you pretend to be a hot girl on a dating site, when you're not, is that lying? if you say you dont smoke or do drugs when you do, is that lying? yes it is. should you be charged with unauthorized use of a computer? I dont think so.

the issue isnt cyber bullying here, its what laws are being applied to it. i think its already illegal to abuse people, its in the spousal abuse laws. causing death through psychological abuse is a case of manslaughter at LEAST or criminal negligence causing death. perhaps murder even if there was intent, but this has NOTHING to do with computers or telephones or writing paper letters to the same effect. it has to do with intent of a person, not the tools they used.