Recently, three girls in Indianapolis were charged with cyberbullying after sending threatening text messages to classmates. Their defense attorney is claiming that the recipients of these texts should have realized the girls were joking because they used emoticons (those little smiley faces) and terms like “LOL” and “JK” after their threats. This has complicated the already murky issue of cyberbullying, and made a difficult situation worse.
The school the girls attend expelled them after receiving reports of the harassment. The ACLU became involved and claimed the school had no cause to expel these girls because the harassment did not take place during school hours or on school property. This much, I agree with. The school should have no reason to discipline the girls regarding this matter unless the messages were sent from school computers or during school hours.
However, I do not believe the claim that “I was only joking. See the little smiley face?” is sufficient to prove innocence. Sure, most of us have joked around with a friend and made threats in a light-hearted manner. It’s part of friendship. According to reports, that’s not what happened in this case. One of the parents, Regina Webb, said the threats involved bathtubs of acid and lighting people on fire. Messages were posted on Facebook, in public forum, for everyone to see. This goes beyond light-hearted joking. This is emotional harassment online, and that makes it cyberbullying.
Sadly, too many people today find the anonymity of the internet a quick method of making threats and calling names. This isn’t just children, either. Adults are as guilty as the children are about using the social media sites to ridicule others. The appeal is in not having to look the victim in the face when making such horrific threats, and not being readily available for retaliation. It’s even easy to claim someone hacked your account and posted those things without your knowledge. There’s almost no sense of responsibility with cyberbullying.
Even more sadly, there are too many people who think bullying is just a part of life, and the victims need to toughen up. These people don’t see the harm in “a little name calling” or “good fun.” People like this have apparently never experienced the fear of having this “good fun” on a daily basis, of having your life threatened, or being physically assaulted on a daily basis. Bullying is not fun, not for the victim. Whether it’s done in person or online, whether you claim you were joking or not, it is harassment. It is frightening. It needs to stop.