Cyberbullying: what's the law?

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is the use of electronic or online communications by someone to threaten or intimidateanother person. There is no legal definition of cyberbullying at this time, and there is no specific anti-cyberbullying legislation. However, it can be dealt with under other criminal and civil laws.

Cyberbullying can have potentially serious consequences for the victim. What may appear to be an apparently minor incident could have very serious long-term consequences for the victim and should be taken seriously.

Types of cyberbullying

Mobile phone and other mobile devices: using a mobile phone or similar device to send abusive or threatening text messages, video messages, photo messages and phone calls. This includes anonymous text messages sent using Bluetooth technology and distributing phone video footage of physical attacks on people, or ‘happy slapping’.

Email: this includes abusive or threatening emails sent to a single target, or to a group in order to encourage or incite others to take part in the sending of abusive emails or phone messages to individuals.

Instant messenger and chatrooms: the use of instant messaging or chatrooms to send abusive or threatening messages or to encourage others to send abusive or threatening messages to individuals.

Social networking sites: creating profiles or contributing to pages on social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that abuse or threaten individuals. This includes the posting of images or emails of others on social networking sites without their express permission, or assuming the identity of others by getting hold of their account details and sending or posting messages on their behalf, could be classed as cyberbullying. Individuals using social media sites to harass and abuse others are often called ‘trolls’.

Interactive gaming: the use of games to abuse or threaten others. This includes locking people out of games, spreading rumours about others, adding the email addresses and profiles of others to gaming mailing lists, or hacking into other’s accounts.

Sending viruses: the use of viruses sent to others to corrupt or delete information on their personal computer.

What should I do if I am a victim?

If the cyberbullying has taken place between school children, particularly during school hours and is not serious cyberbullying, it could be dealt with in school – the school and teachers will have strategies in place which should deal effectively with the problem. All UK schools are required to have an anti-bullying policy either under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 or the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003.

However, in other more serious circumstances the police should be called in, or because existing strategies in place have failed.

What should I do as a parent, teacher or adult responsible for a victim?

All incidents of cyberbullying should be properly recorded to facilitate an investigation. Keep a record of all communications as evidence. Attempts should be made to identify the bully, if not yet known, by looking at the relevant institution’s computer network. However, the police will need to be involved if it necessary to gain access to any internet service provider’s records or data of phone or internet users, such as an alleged cyberbully.

Cyberbullying and the law

Bullying and cyberbullying are not specifically criminal offences. However, there are criminal and civil laws that can be used to prosecute the perpetrators of cyberbullying including:

  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997;
  • The Malicious Communications Act 1988;
  • The Communications Act 2003;
  • The Public Order Act 1986;
  • The Education and Inspections Act 2006 (EIA 2006) – this act provides for staff and teachers to confiscate items from pupils, such as mobile phones.

For example, under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, it is an offence to send a communication with the intention of causing distress or anxiety; and under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 it an offence to send an electronic message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 covers threatening behaviour or harassment, including online and offline stalking.

If the police have enough evidence to charge the perpetrator under any of the above legislation, and they are convicted, this can act as a powerful deterrent to others. The victim may also be awarded damages because of the harm they have suffered.

On other hand, the victim will have to give a detailed account to the police which could be distressing. If charges are brought, the victim may be required to give evidence in court as a witness. The case can be difficult and stressful, particularly if the cyberbullying has deeply affected the victim.

Should I take civil action?

The circumstances in the round should be taken into account. The advantage is that involving a solicitor can help you to be taken seriously, and they can help support you if school authorities (for instance) are not helping.

However, to rely on civil remedies such as applying for an injunction preventing the perpetrator from engaging in abusive behaviour or harassment, is costly. Your solicitor could, instead, write a formal ‘cease and desist’ letter to the perpetrator, or issue a claim against them for harassment, or take further action depending on who the perpetrator is, but again this can be expensive.

What is crucial is that you keep a careful record of all incidents so that you have the evidence in support of any future action you or the police decide to take.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.