We get a lot of emails, phone calls, and comments on this blog from adults who are being bullied though technology. They stress to us that cyberbullying is not just an adolescent problem. Believe me, we know. We receive more inquiries from adults than teens. We know that cyberbullying negatively affects adults too. It’s just that we spend the majority of our efforts studying how this problem impacts school-aged youth due to their tenuous developmental stage. That said, I thought I would take some time here to give the adults who have been victimized out there some general advice.
Also, please be careful not to retaliate – or do anything that might be perceived by an outsider to have contributed to the problem. Do not respond to the cyberbully except to calmly tell them to stop. If they refuse, you may have to take additional actions. If you are ever afraid for your safety, you need to contact law enforcement to investigate. They can determine whether any threats made are credible. If they are, the police will formally look into it. The evidence that you have collected will help them to evaluate your situation.
You should also take the time to check your state laws. We have discussed some of these laws on this blog and have a summary of many applicable laws here. In Wisconsin, for example, it is a misdemeanor if someone uses computerized communication systems to “frighten, intimidate, threaten, abuse, or harass another person.” It is also against the law to “harass annoy, or offend another person.” See what the laws in your state are to determine if the police should get involved.
If the threats or comments are detrimental to your health, safety, or occupation, you might want to consult with an attorney who specializes in harassment, defamation of character, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or similar types of civil action. A letter sent from an attorney (on law firm letterhead) to the bully may be all that is necessary to get the bullying to stop. The problem with this approach is that it can be costly. I have spoken to some victims who have consulted with attorneys who want a significant sum of money to get involved, even at a basic level. I can only imagine how frustrating this is after experiencing emotional and psychological suffering – and then realizing that you can’t afford to get legal help. Another problem associated with pursuing a bully through civil action is that, even if you are successful and a judge or jury rules in your favor, it can be difficult to determine an appropriate damage amount. I served as an expert witness in a cyberbullying case in the summer of 2008. In that case, the adult victims were being bullied in an AOL chat room. Everyone agreed that what the bully was doing was wrong, but to what were the victims entitled? They had some modest medical bills and could be reimbursed for costs associated with their AOL account – but these losses added up to less than $1,000. And while I don’t know the actual amount, I am sure their legal bills were in the tens of thousands of dollars. They ended up settling for a very small amount – just to make a statement to the bully. Most of us can’t afford to take those actions on principle alone.
In sum, it can be difficult to hold bullies accountable for their actions (for both adolescents and adults). In a country such as ours that values free speech so highly, many people genuinely believe they can say whatever they want, to whomever they want. We know that is not true, but it isn’t clear where exactly the line is. And just because we *can* say certain things, doesn’t mean we should. It’s no wonder that many teens are wrestling with this problem—they see the adults in their lives saying mean and nasty things to others on a regular basis. Do your part to model appropriate behavior and address any hurtful language when it comes up. The kids (and other adults) in your life will hopefully see it, remember it, and act in the right ways.