Authorities are investigating the role of cyberbullying in the suicide last week of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who jumped to her death from a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home.
Friends and family said she suffered constant online harassment from friends who had turned against her in a dispute over a boy. Rebecca was "absolutely terrorized on social media," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters.
Gone are the days when spiteful words and banter between students was traded in middle-school bathroom stalls and by notes passed in the hallways.
About 20 percent of young people have been the victim of cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens have admitted they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites.
"It's now 24-7. It's not just something you can escape after the school day," said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
-- Sending cruel, vicious or threatening e-mails.
-- Creating Web sites that have stories, pictures and jokes ridiculing others.
-- Posting pictures of other students/kids online with derogatory phrases or questions attached to them.
-- Using someone else's e-mail to send vicious or incriminating e-mails to others.
-- Using instant messaging tools to harass others.
When the Pennsylvania House of Representatives reconvenes in Harrisburg for the fall session, a proposal on cyberbullying will be one of the issues that legislators address.
"The consequences can be ... very devastating to a child. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized cyberbullying as an emergency public health problem," said State Representative Ron Marsico.
At a recent hearing, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association voiced support for the plan, but said it should be changed to ensure that anyone prosecuted under it must be shown to have a malicious intent.
Every state but Montana has an anti-bullying law. However, only 18 states actually have laws that mention cyberbullying.
Not everyone is behind the crusade to eradicate cyberbullying. The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the legislation, saying it isn’t constitutional to censor free speech online just because it is mean-spirited and directed at a child.
However, Audrey Rogers, a professor at Pace Law School says words can be criminal. "You're not allowed to use your words to harass, annoy or intimidate someone," she said. "It's clear the law allows you to outlaw certain kinds of speech."
(Image: Aimee Galassi holds a sign during a carwash fundraiser in memory of cyberbullying victim Rebecca Ann Sedwick in Lakeland, Fla, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/The Ledger, Rick Runion/The Ledger via Associated Press)
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.