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While the majority of childhood bullying once took place within the bounds of the schoolyard, the Internet now provides a platform for students to toss insults for the entire school (and, in some cases, the entire world) to see. Thanks to the ease of social networking, cyberbullying has become a common extracurricular activity for catty tweens and teenagers seeking to humiliate their peers. Fortunately, the disturbing frequency of online bullying has garnered significant attention within the legal community; many states are advocating school and even criminal sanctions for cyberbullies.
Earlier this month, two Texas middle-schoolers learned the consequences of Facebook bullying the hard way when they were arrested and charged for impersonating a classmate via the social networking site, a third degree felony in Texas. The “bullies,” ages 12 and 13, created a fictitious Facebook page that purported to belong to another 12-year old student. According to the mother of the victim, the fake page displayed “name-calling and vulgar messages, along with physical threats and false rumors” directed toward classmates. These comments, viewed by many of the page’s 63 “friends,” deeply tarnished the victim’s reputation and caused classmates to threaten her with physical retaliation.
Following the arrests, the “bullies” were taken to a juvenile detention center and the Facebook page was seized by the county sheriff’s office. The page currently features an image of the county sheriff’s shield and a statement indicating that the page was fictitious and is now under the control of law enforcement. This glaring public notice sends an important message: cyberbullying will not be taken lightly in Texas. According to the sheriff’s office, the crime committed by the middle-schoolers is tantamount to both bullying and identity theft: “[I]nstead of trying to get a financial gain out of [this form of impersonation], you’re just flat trying to hurt someone socially. It’s against the law.”
While we can all agree that cyberbullying and impersonation are reprehensible activities, a third degree felony charge is more than just a slap on the wrist for the two Texas tweens. The charges could accompany the girls into adulthood, adversely affecting their college admissions, scholarship and loan approval, and employment prospects. Is this really what it takes to stop kids from picking on each other online? If felony charges are too severe for middle-schoolers, what else can be done to effectively deter cyberbullying among school-aged websurfers?
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