Bullies in a wired world: the impact of cyberspace victimization on adolescent mental health and the need for cyberbullying legislation in Ohio.

Author:Albin, Kelly A.
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION II. THENEED FOR CYBERBULLYING LEGISLATION A. The Negative Effects of Cyberbullying 1. The Differences Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying 2. The Mental and the Psychological Health Effects of Cyberbullying B. The Inadequacy of Existing Legal Remedies for Ohio Victims 1. Ohio Civil Remedies Related to Cyberbullying 2. Ohio Criminal Laws Related to Cyberbullying III. CYBERBULLYING LEGISLATION IN OTHER STATES IV. PROPOSED FEDERAL CYBERBULLYING LEGISLATION V. PROPOSED LEGISLATIVE RESPONSES TO CYBERBULLYING FOR OHIO A. Amendments to Ohio's Current Bullying Statutes B. Model Cyberbullying Criminal Statute or Amendments to the Current Telecommunications Harassment Statute 1. Model Cyberbullying Statute i. Definitional Provision ii. Direct and Indirect Liability iii. Degree of Punishment and Expungement 2. Amendments to the Telecommunications Harassment Statute VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    Thirteen-year-old Hope Witsell used her favorite scarves to hang herself from a canopy bed. (1) Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier used a belt to hang herself in a closet. (2) Thirteen-year-old Alex shot himself with his grandfather's antique shotgun. (3) Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. (4) These teens are among the many victims of cyberbullying and represent bullying's dangerous progression (5) in the digital age. This Note examines cyberbullying's impact on adolescents' mental health and psychological and emotional development and explores the need for Ohio-specific cyberbullying legislation.

    Traditionally, bullies' taunts and torments were confined to the schoolyard and halls. Most bullying resembled either a survival of the fittest (6) scenario or psychological warfare; (7) stealing other kids' lunch money and threatening to "punch their lights out," or pouncing on insecurities and spreading viciously false rumors. No matter the type of bully, once the school day ended, bullied victims safely retreated to a peaceful night at home, away from the emotional, physical, and mental abuse. Today, the retreat to home is no longer a retreat to safety. (8) In a wired world, the schoolyard is now the Internet, allowing students to target and inescapably victimize other students through cyberbullying in the playgrounds of cyberspace.

    Cyberbullying is the "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices." (9) Although this is an imperfect definition, it includes four main components that are important in defining cyberbullying: (1) deliberate behavior, not merely accidental; (2) repeated behavior, more than a one-time incident; (3) harm occurred--from the victim's perspective; and (4) it is executed through a technological medium. (10) This phenomenon has recently received worldwide attention because of its negative effect on adolescent mental health (11) and the many cases of cyberbullying-induced teen suicide. (12) In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") (13) identified a significant upward trend in total suicide rates for three of six sex-age groups observed in the study: females aged 10-14 years and 15-19 years and males aged 15-19 years. (14) Females aged 10-14 years represented the greatest percentage increase in suicide rates from 2003 to 2004 (75.9%), followed by females aged 15-19 years (32.3%) and males aged 15-19 years (9.0%). (15) Since then, suicide rates among young adults continue to cause national concern, with cyberbullying as a driving force. (16) The nationwide rise in teen suicide and cyberbullying victimization compelled thirty-four states to pass specific cyberbullying laws or to amend state bullying statutes to include cyberbullying or electronic harassment scenarios. (17)

    Ohio is not exempt from the nationwide epidemic of cyberbullying-induced teen suicide. In the past five years alone, four teens from Mentor High School took their lives after being tormented and teased for extended periods of time. (18) Each victim endured relentless bullying at school, retreated to a cyberbullying-filled night at home, and developed severe depression and social withdrawal. (19) A similar incident occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio. (20) Jessica Logan was a beautiful high school senior with blonde hair and blue eyes, who aspired to study graphic design at the University of Cincinnati. (21) Unfortunately, a nude photo of Jessica was reportedly sent to her boyfriend, and when the relationship ended, the image soon went viral to four high schools. (22) Students harassed Jessica for months, calling her a "slut" and a "whore" and even throwing objects at herf13 Although the local resource officer, school officials, and local prosecutor's office were aware of Jessica's bullying, each said they could not press charges against or discipline the teens. (24) The resource officer stated that he only help her by asking the students to delete the video and encouraged Jessica to go public with her story, without consulting Jessica's mother. (25) Shortly after the interview aired, however, the abuse intensified. (26) After months of feeling miserable, depressed, and afraid to go to school, Jessica ended her life by hanging herself in her bedroom. (27) This scenario alone warrants the attention of Ohio legislators. Ohio should follow the majority of other states by recognizing cyberbullying's detrimental effect on adolescents' mental health (28) and the exigent need to enact specific cyberbullying legislation.

    Cyberbullying-induced suicide and online victimization calls for an immediate response by Ohio legislators. But, Ohio courts should avoid the temptation to prosecute cyberbullies under ill-fit statutes, and the Ohio legislature should avoid enacting knee-jerk legislation that may create unintended consequences that substantially restrict free speech. (29) The Ohio General Assembly should instead respond to this digital trend by amending its current anti-bullying educational statutes (30) to include cyberbullying or telecommunications harassment awareness and prevention within schools. (31) Ohio should also either adopt a specific criminal cyberbullying statute or amend the current telecommunications harassment statute (32) to more closely fit a cyberbullying-type scenario that focuses on conduct between juveniles. (33)

    This Note examines cyberbullying's impact on adolescents' mental health and psychological development and explores an Ohio-specific legislative response to the problem. Part II addresses the urgent need for cyberbullying legislation, the inadequacy of Ohio law, and the detrimental effects that may result when juveniles are targeted by cyberbullies. Part III demonstrates how other states have reacted to the cyberbullying problem by amending already enacted bullying statutes or by creating new and specific cyberbullying laws. Part IV proposes a new cyberbullying statute that criminalizes the more extreme cases of cyberbullying, incorporates age as a sentencing factor, and introduces school-employee liability for any reckless or knowing disregard for cyberbullying instances. This section also proposes amending the current bullying statutes applicable to state boards of education.34 Finally, Part V provides forward-looking recommendations about how legislators, parents, and schools should respond to cyberbullying and includes concluding remarks on cyberbullying and the current legal landscape.

  2. THE NEED FOR CYBERBULLYING LEGISLATION

    Cyberbullying continues to escalate with the proliferation of Internet use and social networking sites. (35) According to the CDC, cyberbullying has evolved into a "public health problem" (36) that cannot be ignored. (37) Because cyberbullies can target victims through a variety of mediums, at any time, cyberbullying is not only more severe than traditional bullying, (38) but has also proven to frustrate adolescents' emotional, psychological, and sociological development. (39) Yet in Ohio, cyberbullying victims lack a specific legal remedy, and cyberbullies may be prosecuted under ill-fit criminal statutes. Criminal laws, such as telecommunications harassment (40) or menacing by stalking, (41) provide harsh sentences for juvenile offenders and do not account for the typical cyberbullying scenario. (42) The Ohio General Assembly should pass specific cyberbullying legislation to address this unique and growing problem.

    1. The Negative Effects of Cyberbullying

      Before the Internet, bullies dominated the schoolyard. Now, bullies of the twenty-first century release their aggressions online, as cyberspace becomes the "high-tech playground for intimidation." (43) In a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the National Crime Prevention Council (44) ("NCPC") reported that the percentage of children who recounted being physically bullied over the past year declined by seven percent from 2003 to 2008. (45) The NCPC believes the numbers are encouraging, but notes that cyberbullying has eclipsed physical bullying. Currently, more than forty-three percent of teens report being victimized by cyberbullying. (46) Michelle Boykins, Director of Communications for the NCPC, stated, "[w]e are worried about the pervasive growth of cyberbullying among our young people. The online assault of our kids through cyberbullying hurts every bit as much as a fist and can be equally damaging." (47) With the alarming number of teen suicides recently receiving national attention, cyberbullying can result in even deadlier consequences. (48)

      1. The Differences Between Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying

        Cyberbullying shares three common characteristics with traditional bullying: (1) malicious and aggressive behavior; (2) an imbalance of power between two players; and (3) repetitive behavior over a period of time.49 Thus, the electronic medium seems to be the key difference between traditional bullying and its digital counterpart. (50) This difference makes cyberbullying...

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