Has anyone by now not been the victim of online harassment and bullying at some point? The issue of online bullying is endemic, now that kids grow up with their social lives essentially online. Bullying that used to be confined to the schoolyard, now tracks children, teenagers and adults in cyberspace. And the disproportionate share of victims online are female. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (Cyberbullying.org), 27% of all cyberbullying victims are teenaged girls — as compared to the 17% of victims who are teenaged boys. Interestingly, the majority of these online attacks on girls are committed by other teenaged girls. (Teensafe.com). According to a global survey published by The Guardian, one young person in five has suffered online abuse.
Women who speak out in public are often intimidated online by harassment which includes verbal threats. That was the case with Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, who actually quit social media after receiving rape threats targeted at her five-year-old daughter, an event that she has publicly addressed. Lindy West, a fat acceptance activist, after writing about the issue of rape jokes in comedy, was confronted by a swarm of trolls posting comments such as “No one would want to rape that fat, disgusting mess.” Apparently, outspoken women seem to pose a unique threat to internet “trolls.”
But it is not just women who suffer from cyberbullying and harassment. People of all kinds are victimized. There are well-known cases of girls who have committed suicide after cyberbullying about intimate details of their lives — such as Brandy Vela, a Texas teen who committed suicide by shooting herself in December 2016 after having a fake Facebook page made of her and receiving threatening text messages. There are also gay and trans young people have also committed or attempted suicide in the wake of such bullying online. An example is the case of Taylor Aleena, a trans teen whose YouTube channel inspired many other trans teens and their friends and families, but who nonetheless killed herself after being bullied online.
I can personally vouch for how traumatic it is to be bullied online. I have been the victim of online harassment in episodes dating back to high school, and experienced even more online harassment and bullying in college, since I wrote for various websites as an ardent feminist journalist. I covered stories about the stigma of sexually transmitted infections, I wrote about reproductive health, and I addressed other controversial topics. In response, I received continual online attacks on my appearance, and even received rape and death threats. This was troubling, to say the least, but I have not let the threats silence me.
In January, 2017, I had my most frightening online harassment experience to date. I wrote for feminist website Ravishly about having been harassed online in college. After that piece was published, the online harassment, ironically, just got worse. My harassers even contacted my mother and administrators at my university, The New School, with false negative claims about my mental health. Others added my full name to a public ‘anti-“Social Justice Warrior”‘ wiki page, making me feel even more exposed and at personal risk.
I went to the police in my hometown in New York City twice about this, where I filed two police reports for aggravated harassment. The police did nothing. Facebook and Twitter told me the messages didn’t “violate their community standards.” Neither company removed the horrible posts about me, calling me names such as “disgusting, herpes riddled dirtbag,” or took any other meaningful action about the harassment I was experiencing online.
I eventually wrote my college thesis about how this type of harassment often affects women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups in particular. The Pew Research Center states in their 2014 report, “Online Harassment,” that African-American and Hispanic internet users are more likely to receive online harassment than are their white counterparts: 51% of African-American internet users and 54% of Hispanic internet users had experienced harassment, compared to 34% of white internet users.
Finally there is legislative action on this issue. Interestingly, this bill was proposed by a woman who seems to have everything: Megan Jarensky is a former Miss New York who was impersonated online in 2014. Thanks to her efforts, on January 13th, the New York State Assembly introduced this bill which “enacts provisions to ensure that New York state public schools are safe and free from cyber-bullying.” The bill states that “no person shall engage in cyber bullying against any minor” and that “any person who knowingly violates the provisions of this section shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to one thousand dollars and/or up to one year imprisonment.” Known as Bill No. S02318, this anti-bullying act was sponsored by State Senator Michael Ranzenhofer (R-NY) and co-sponsored by State Senators Tony Avella (D-NY), John DeFrancisco (R-NY), Rich Funke (R-NY), Martin Golden (R-NY), and William Larkin (R-NY).
Others are joining people like me: even some celebrities, such as pop singer Kesha, are getting involved in the issue of online harassment. K
While Assembly members, activists, and celebrities are working to put an end to cyberbullying, others don’t see this situation as being severe at all. Some are even making entertainment out of the situation: I was recently contacted by TV producers from Critical Content (the company behind Catfish) who are putting together a reality TV series that will bring victims of online harassment face to face with their trolls. To me, this approach is extremely trivializing of the distress that cyberbullying causes.
Supporters of this bill say that this is a belated remedy against the epidemic of harassment and bullying online, and lets the law catch up at last with technology. Critics are extremely concerned that this represents yet another challenge to First Amendment guarantees of freedoms of speech. They argue, too, that there are already state-by-state criminal penalties against making threats of violence or harm against anyone, whether in person or online — and there is also one new Federal law (related specifically to online threats of posting pornography made of someone’s image, known as Revenge Porn). Still others point out that this New York State bill is part of a trend: 34 out of 50 states already have laws against cyberbullying (Stopbullying.gov).
What do you think? Is this bill a needed deterrent against ever-present cyberbullying? Or is it an example of political correctness run amok, as critics claim, that dampens freedoms of speech? Have you ever been cyberbullied? If so, what happened — and what was the outcome? Have your kids ever been bullied online?
Use the BillCam above to share this bill with your networks. You can also use it to tweet your opinion and this article to the bill’s sponsors and to your Representatives. If you are experiencing online harassment, meantime, if the harassment involves aspects of gender, race, ethnicity, or national origin, especially in a school related setting, you can report it to The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and then the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.