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.