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Cyberbullying, social media and the law

Young people have an important role to play in shaping the future of the internet, including the spaces where they spend time and the etiquette for interacting with others online. Safer Internet Day will be celebrated on February 8th 2022, and the theme for this year is ‘All fun and games? Exploring respect and relationships online’.

While most people are aware of what amounts to cyberbullying and harassment on social media, many do not know about the law and how to report such behaviour when it takes place online. In this article, we look at when cyberbullying might be a crime, and how you can report online harassment if it happens to you.

Can sending messages online be a criminal offence?

From behind a keyboard, sending an offensive message may seem almost harmless. However, if a person sends offensive, abusive or threatening messages on a social media platform, it could amount to a criminal offence.

Harassment

The offence of harassment occurs where the perpetrator demonstrates a ‘course of conduct’. This means that there must be at least two occurrences of sending messages which cause alarm or distress. Cyberbullying could fall under the crime of harassment when it happens several times.

Malicious communication

If there has only been one message or other communication, it is unlikely to amount to harassment in the eyes of the law. However, if it is severe enough, it could amount to malicious communication. For a message to amount to malicious communication, it must be sent directly to another person, or sent publicly and the communication itself must be indecent, grossly offensive, obscene, threatening or menacing.

Indecent images

If another party distributes private sexual images or videos of you without your consent, they may also be committing a crime and you should report it to the police.

What can I do about cyberbullying, harassment, or distribution of private images?

You can report online harassment, malicious messaging or communications or sharing of indecent images without your consent to the police.

The police will discuss what happened with you and outline whether an offence has been committed and what happens next. You should take screenshots of any messages in case they are deleted at a later stage.

I have been accused of harassment, malicious communication or distributing indecent images, what can I do?

If you have been accused of committing an online crime, it is essential that you contact a solicitor right away. Under no circumstances should you contact your accuser to attempt to resolve the situation - this could make matters much worse. We understand that this may be difficult, confusing and even hurtful but it is essential that you do not take matters into your own hands. Contact a solicitor.

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