With incidences of cyberbullying ever on the rise, Kate Gordon ask if the legal system is capable or willing to take the necessary steps to combat it

Increasing pressure to deal with the formidable increase of cyberbullying prompted Ireland to hold its first ever national conference on cyberbullying in Dublin Castle on September 1st. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the reporter on Child Protection to the Dáil, has advised the State to classify cyberbullying as a punishable crime, saying that the state has been “taken unawares” by the onslaught of online harassment and bullying. Leaders from organisations such as Facebook and Twitter were in attendance, whose respective companies should have special interests in the combating cyberbullying. However, with many of the audiences’ questions surrounding age limits on Facebook and children abiding by such rules not being answered, many people questioned whether Facebook was really capable of dealing with their major challenge of the prevention of cyberbullying alone.

Cyberbullying is defined as “a person who uses repeated inappropriate behaviour, strength or influence, whether directly or indirectly, verbal, physical or otherwise to intimidate, torment, threaten, harass or embarrass others… using the internet or other technology, such as mobile telephones.” While Ireland does have the bare bones of legislation to deal with internet bullying, this hasn’t prevented instances of cyberbullying increasing yearly and many are demanding that specific legislation be put in place to protect children online.

There are two principle statutes dealing with the issue of cyberbullying; The Non Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 and The Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Both acts aim to protect the victim of the harassment, as well as set out the punishment for one found guilty of such a crime.

Legislating against crime involving cyberbullying has become more and more necessary in the past decade, with increased technology allowing users to access the internet at any given time and social media sites that have developed in response to the demand. On an international scale, the development of legislation is often too disorganised to be effective as different regions and states choose to confront the issue in different ways. Australia has seven different approaches to tackling cyberbullying at a legislative level, depending on the area of Australia in which you reside, and the USA works in a similar fashion. There is no nationwide legislation in place dealing with such an occurrence, leading to discrepancies in the investigation and prosecution of those accused of cyberbullying. The internet does not adhere to state borders, so why does the legislation?

According to Alan O’Mara, Communications Officer at SpunOut.ie, just legislating for cyberbullying will not provide a solution to the problem alone. “While criminalising cyberbullying will act as a deterrent to those who consciously bully others, the law will do little to address the problem of those who do so without realising the impact or nature of their behaviour.”

“We need to address the underlying behaviour and educate every child about the consequences of bullying. Social networks haven’t created a new problem, they have simply augmented the issue of bullying. Cyberbullying legislation and the focus on the issue it brings is welcomed but it alone will not solve the problem,” he continued.

The issue of cyberbullying came to the forefront of the media once again recently with the hacking of Jennifer Lawrence’s and other celebrities’ personal information from what is believed to be a breach in the security of their iCloud accounts. This breach of personal information saw the publication of personal photographs of the stars online. A representative for Lawrence stated that “This is a flagrant violation of privacy. The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence.”

This version of cyberbullying is not unusual, unfortunately, with celebrity hacking scandals and flagrant violations of privacy becoming somewhat of a social norm in our society. The threat of prosecution for the hacker who posted nude photos of the Silver Lining Playbook’s star on 4chan is looming, with the last celebrity hacker Christopher Chaney imprisoned for more than ten years in a federal prison for hacking accounts of many stars, including Scarlet Johansson, and distributing indecent photos of the Johansson.

Unfortunately, with the staggering increase of technology in the last decade comes a major increase in cyber and technology based crime. Cyberbullying is a difficult field to negotiate, as the boundaries of intentional and unintentional harassment can be hard to discern. However, the perpetrators of cyberbullying crimes are not to be taken lightly, with a Garda statistic showing that a child carrying out cyberbullying at 12 years of age is twice as likely to have a criminal conviction by the age of 24. One can only hope that the influence of non-profit organisations such as SpunOut, internetsafety.ie and Barnardos will help to counteract this alarming trend, and that education and legislation rise to the task of informing children and young adults about internet safety.