The two communicated for several weeks through MySpace. Megan developed a strong connection to Josh; several weeks later, Josh posted that he no longer wanted to be friends with Megan because he had heard she was not a nice person and said that “the world would be a better place” without her.
On October 17, 2006, Megan hung herself. Shockingly, several weeks later, authorities revealed that Josh did not exist; he was a fictitious person created by Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends.
Bullying, a widespread and serious problem is no longer limited to the schoolyard. In today’s society which is so technologically advanced, cyber-bullying, which consists of posting offensive posts on social networks, sending harassing emails or text messages, or revealing personal information about a victim without their consent, is now the new form of bullying.
In recent years, cyber-bulling has lead to tragic and heartrending outcomes such as the victims committing suicide or suffering from severe depression. In schools particularly, cyber-bullying is on the rise.
According to a report of the 2006-07 school year, the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) revealed that:
- 8,166,000 students or 31.7 % of students between the ages 12 – 18 reported they were bullied at school
- 940,000, or about 3.7 %, reported they were the victims of cyber-bullying on or off school property
Also in recent years, cyber-bulling has increased in terms of tragedies and awareness. As a result, most states have implemented cyber-bulling laws, like California which makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone through a website or other electronic means with the intent to harm, intimidate, or threaten. However, the question presented is should cyber-bullying be made a federal crime, thereby invoking a harsher punishment?
In the case of Megan, Lori was convicted of computer fraud in 2008 but the court’s decision was overturned in 2009. In the case of Tyler Clementi, a freshman of Rutgers University who died and was the victim of an internet hate crime, his roommates faced charges of invasion of privacy. These punishments lead to a public outcry for more severe punishment for cyber-bullying.
In an attempt to put an end to the outcry, in 2009 California U.S. Representative Linda Sanchez introduced the Megan Meier Cyber-bulling Prevention Act which makes it a federal crime to use electronic devices to “coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person” or to “support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior”. However, the bill never became law.
Making cyber-bullying a federal crime will be a difficult task, since our legal system is based on a retributivist system where the punishment must fit the crime. Moreover, punishment should not be implemented based on the public outrage. Although cyber-bullying has serious consequences, which in some cases ends in suicide, this should not influence or cloud the judgment of a prosecutor.
Also, there is the question of society’s role in cyber-bullying. We live in a virtually connected society, in which we are encouraged by social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to post our every thought and whereabouts online, at the same time sacrificing our own privacy for connectedness. Therefore, society needs to be mindful of the level of responsibility required when posting on these social media sites.
Cyber-bullying is a dangerous act that has serious consequences, and living in a society that is ruled by social media, i.e., Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc., gives us an immense amount of publishing power. However, with such an increase in power there also comes an increase in responsibilty, a thought that may not be on the minds of the current and upcoming social media generation.
In terms of making cyber-bullying a federal crime or having a harsher punishment for cyber-bullies, in the words of the great philosophers John Mills and Jeremy Bentham, “the punishment must fit the crime.” However, if cyber-bulling leads a victim to commit suicide, a question society needs to answer before public outrage is “what is the actual level of influence of these cyber-bullies?”