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Cyber-bullying can lead to harsh legal consequences

The rise of the Internet in the past few decades has also led to the expansion of Internet-related crimes. Online activities are no longer as incognito as they once seemed. Anonymous usernames, avatars and password-protected accounts aren’t enough to shield users from the real-world consequences of online crimes.

One relatively new type of Internet crime – cyber-bullying – has garnered national attention, especially in light of highly publicized cases. Cyber-bullying is a broad term that includes harassment, stalking, threats and other malicious conduct advanced through any electronic means – computers, mobile phones, tablets, email, websites, instant messaging, text messages, social media and the like. It can involve direct messages sent privately to the victim or public postings spread to a group of people. Additionally, it can involve identity theft, impersonation or invasion of privacy.

The common thread that runs through all of these behaviors is an intent to cause fear. The goal is to torment, intimidate and humiliate the victim.

Like other forms of speech-related crimes, however, cyber-bullying cases often involve legal gray areas. When do written or spoken words cross the line from free speech into criminally punishable behavior? The answer isn’t always clear. Much depends on the context of each situation.

California law takes a strong stance against cyber-bullying. It imposes harsh civil and criminal penalties for both cyber-stalking and cyber-harassment. A conviction can result in a prison sentence, significant fines, a lasting criminal record and a tarnished reputation.

Many people facing cyber-bullying accusations are juveniles with their entire futures ahead of them. In these cases, the stakes are especially high for everyone involved.

The takeaway is that it’s always wise to approach online activities with caution. In today’s digital age, the consequences of a few ill-thought-out words can last a lifetime.

Source: California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, "Cyberbullying,” accessed March 23, 2015.

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