By Zoie Mafe
Thousands of victims. The lurking anonymous threats. Depression. These are all effects of one thing: cyberbullying. Thousands of kids have been cyberbullied or know of kids who have been cyberbullied. Cyberbullying feeds on the doubts and struggles of young minds like children and teenagers, but it can affect adults as well. Cyberbullying ruins people’s lives, and bullying, in any form, needs to come to an end. But how? Well, the Michigan legislature has just passed a new law that makes cyberbullying a crime, and that’s how the lawmakers are hoping will be a solution to cyberbullying. Unfortunately, this law may cause more harm than good. Although it may catch a few cyberbullies, the new Michigan law regarding cyberbullying will also jeopardize regular human interaction by convicting innocent people of cyberbullying.
In a new Michigan law that passed this past March, there are serious punishments for anyone convicted of cyberbullying. According to Aleanna Siacon, a journalism and political science student at Wayne State University and wrote for the Detroit Free Press, the punishment will be “a maximum 5-year sentence and/or a $5,000 fine.” (3) Additionally, Siacon states “A violator whose continued online harassment causes the death of a victim can be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail for the felony and/or a $10,000 fine.” (4) The punishments for convicted cyberbullies are not to be taken lightly so it is important to know what is considered cyberbullying and what is not to avoid the above stated punishments.
Cyberbullying has become such an important issue, but it is not as easily defined as one might suppose. Sameer Hinduja, part of the Criminal Justice School of Florida Atlantic University, along with his fellow authors, states, “Many individuals may believe that they already fully understand and can recognize what cyberbullying is. The reality, however, is that there exists much variability in the way cyberbullying is defined and considered – even among cyberbullying researchers.” (qt in Hinduja et all, 6) Since there is no one accepted definition, the definition defined by the Michigan legislature, as summarized by Siacon, will be used: “Posting a message or statement in a public media forum about any other person that is intended to put someone in fear of bodily harm or death and expresses an intent to commit violence against the person” or “A pattern of harassing or intimidating behavior.” (6) An example of cyberbullying could be when a person constantly posts derogatory language against someone else constantly. Another example would be when someone is outright threatening online to physically hurt someone else. In other words, the Michigan legislature only considers cyberbullying the posts that are outright threats against another person to do physical harm, but the law seems to be vague when it comes to what it considers to be repeated harassing behavior outside of direct threats.
If everything went according to plan, only the cyberbullies would face time in jail and/or a fine; the victims won’t be harassed; all would be well in the world. However, since no justice is perfect, this law won’t work. Take the instance of make-believe Sally and Jessie. Sally and Jessie were friends, but since no friendship is perfect, they fight. In one occasion, they were having an online argument about whether Jell-O was better or pudding. It was a drawn-out argument. Since the topic was important to her, Jessie decided to sue Sally. Jessie claimed that Sally was attacking Jessie’s viewpoint that pudding was better, and that Sally had repeatedly done so. If Jessie can forge a convincing argument against her, Sally could be charged with the misdemeanor of cyberbullying just because she openly disagreed with Jessie’s standpoint on pudding.
This fake scenario may sound ridiculous but what happens if the topic was different, something more important? Elizabeth Kandel Englander, a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, says in her post in the Harvard Education Publishing Blog:
“In fact, there’s good evidence that we tend to use the term “bullying” far too loosely, instead of reserving it for the most egregious behaviors. In my research studying teens at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), I found that for each legitimate use of the word, two to three subjects misused it to refer to minor or transient mean acts, or fights between friends.” (2)
Under this new law, people may have a bigger chance to be sued over fights that may be confused for cyberbullying.
On the other end of the spectrum, the outliers of society may not be protected under this new law. Monica Steiner, a lawyer and a member of the California State Bar, states, “Stalking requires that the defendant’s actions be ones that would put a reasonable person to fear or to feel threatened. This means that if the victim was hyper-sensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person in the victim’s position, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges.” (21) In other words, if a “reasonable” person won’t feel threated then there was no bullying involved. But just as Steiner mentioned earlier, what if the victim was highly sensitive? Does that mean the case will be dropped because the victim was more sensitive than the rest of society? Keath Low, a therapist and clinical scientist and specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD, says, “It is also possible that because of past experiences and growing up with all the negative labels that can be associated with ADHD, some people with ADHD may simply feel more sensitive to negative statements or complaints or even gentle suggestions from others than a person who did not grow up with ADHD.” (6) This is not to paint with a broad brush on all people with ADHD. However, if there anyone that has hypersensitivity associated with ADHD, they may be mentally harassed by comments that a “reasonable” person would just ignore. The ADHD Editorial Board, who is comprised of clinical practitioners, researchers in the field of ADHD, and scientific advisors, reports, “ADHD is reported to occur in about 4.4 percent of the adult population in the U.S., although this figure is thought to be underreported…” (18) If these people with hypersensitivity are being tormented mentally, is there no justice for them? Will their case be tossed since they may not be considered “reasonable”? Under this law, there is a chance that hypersensitive people will be left unheard.
Cyberbullying is awful. No one should ever have to suffer bullying of any form. I appreciate the core value of this law: ending cyberbullying. I take issue, though, with the way they are trying to prevent it. Arguing is part of everyday life; it’s healthy to get all of someone’s opinions out instead of letting them boil inside them. Yet this law leaves room for lawsuits against arguing and stating opinions. On top of that, the portion of the law that dealt with online stalking is based on whether the victim was a ‘reasonable’ person, but what is a ‘reasonable’ person? Does it mean a person if they don’t live up to what society calls ‘reasonable’? This law won’t necessarily solve the problem of cyberbullying, and it might add more problems for the public in general.
ADHD Editorial Board. “ADHD Statistics.” Attitude. 8 Nov. 2019, www.additudemag.com/statistics-of-adhd/
Englander, Elizabeth Kandel. “Do Bullying Laws Work?” Harvard Education Publishing Group. 19 Sept. 2013, www.hepg.org/blog/do-bullying-laws-work
Hinduja, Sameer. “Cyberbullying myths and realities.” ScienceDirect, 3 Aug, 2013, www-sciencedirect-com.lcc.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S074756321300232X
Low, Keath. “Understanding Hypersensitivity in ADHD.” verywellmind, 15 Nov. 2019, www.verywellmind.com/sensitivities-and-adhd-20473
Steiner, Monica, “Cyberbullying in Michigan.” Criminal Defense Lawyer. www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/cyberbullying-michigan.htm
Siacon, Aleanna. “Michigan’s new cyberbullying law about to take effect: What to know.” Detroit Free Press, 25 Mar. 2019, www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2019/03/25/michigan-cyberbullying-bullying-illegal/3266178002/
Professor Melissa Lucken had this to say about Zoie Mafe’s writing. She appreciated Zoie was using her own knowledge and experience to evaluate the law. Her process was to ask a sequence of research questions find answers to one and then ask another one. If Malfe were to keep working on the questions or expand this paper, Lucken would suggest she consider looking for a high school student or another individual to serve as an example discussing and evaluating the helpfulness or hurtfulness of this law.