By | Updated Jan 20, 2017 11:16 PM UTC

Nobody likes a bully. But when bullying takes place online, it’s more than bad behavior. It’s a challenge to governments forced to weigh free speech and an open Internet against privacy and the social harm caused by emotional and physical threats. Cyberbullying can range from spreading malicious gossip via e-mail to posting embarrassing photographs on social media. Cyberstalking is harassment through the Internet that carries a threat of real personal harm. Both have increased with the use of social media, while the calls to stop them have grown louder.

The Situation

U.S. first lady Melania Trump has announced that she will work to call attention to problems of cyberbullying among young people. During the presidential campaign, she said in a speech on the subject, “our culture has gotten too mean and too rough.” Many noted that her husband, President Donald Trump, was called a cyberbully during the campaign for his harsh Twitter messages directed at opponents. Trolls, or people who post provocative messages on social media, have at times bombarded celebrities with racist and sexist messages. The web abets online bullying and harassment because perpetrators can hide behind false profiles and redirected e-mails. The FBI and police have investigated rape and death threats made to female video game developers and bloggers in an online harassment campaign dubbed GamerGate, named for a mostly male, mostly angry community of anonymous video and Internet game players. Law enforcement agencies and schools are cracking down on cyberbullying of students, in part because it’s linked to suicides. Social media companies have felt the heat. After teenagers began abandoning Facebook, the company introduced tools to battle online harassment in 2013. Twitter rolled out new ways to mute and report abusive posts in 2016. The move followed reports that companies that might have acquired the social media platform were concerned about what the uncivil forms of communication would do to their reputations.

The Background

The word bully, derived from Dutch and German, originally meant lover or brother. The term took a darker turn with the rise of the schoolyard ruffian in Victorian England and came to symbolize the nasty way kids can treat each other. After the first U.S. online stalking prosecution in 2004, some states added online harassment laws. Congress included provisions to curtail cyberbullying and cyberstalking in the Violence Against Women Act of 2006; 18- to 24-year-old women are three times more likely to be stalked online than young men. Other governments have gone further. The U.K. passed a law in October 2014 making it a crime to distribute intimate photos without the subject’s consent; New Zealand passed an anti-cyberbullying law in 2015. 

The Argument

Opponents of anti-cyberbullying legislation say existing laws on libel, harassment and assaults can be used to prosecute online bullies and stalkers. And they note that free speech allows for nasty speech. Those pushing for more laws say prosecutors are reluctant to pursue Internet harassment cases because there often isn’t direct contact with victims. School officials have problems dealing with cyberbullies. Often there’s a fine line between an inappropriate comment and a crime requiring police notification. While states mandate that educators stop cyberbullying in schools, courts and lawmakers disagree on whether schools can discipline students for off-campus behavior. There are also questions on whether technology should be the focus of anti-bullying efforts, as more kids say they’ve been bullied in person (12%) or on the phone (7%) than online (8%) or by text (9%). 

The Reference Shelf

  • A 2014 Pew Research Center survey on online harassment. 
  • A Bloomberg Businessweek cover story on what happened to one woman after she started documenting the lack of strong female characters in video games.
  • Alex Lee, also known as #AlexFromTarget, hopes to battle cyberbullying after receiving death threats and seeing his family’s Social Security numbers posted online.
  • A TED talk on public shaming by Monica Lewinsky, who’d had an affair with President Bill Clinton.
  • “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you”: Journalist Amanda Hess detailed the threats against her in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.”
  • Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling went after the Internet trolls who attacked his daughter.

First published Nov. 11, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at