Bill would make cyberbullying a crime
CHARLESTON — Cyberbullying is a problem for minors in West Virginia, which often leads to poor self-esteem, substance abuse and even suicide.
The state Legislature is taking on the issue this session with House Bill 2655, which would define and establish the crime of cyberbullying to minors. It passed through the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
It was recommended to the full House for passage.
“It’s a mental health issue,” said Lisa Bennett, a computer science teacher at Preston High School. “(The bullied minor) often turns to drugs to help ease their anxiety.”
Cyberbullying is one of the most important issues students face today, Bennet stated.
“That, and (substance) addiction,” she added. “But I would add that cyberbullying often leads to addiction problems.”
Bennett said her computer science students are required to sign a letter stating they will adhere to school policies governing cyberbullying, set forth by the local board of education.
“However, getting kicked off of a computer at school does not affect usage of their personal cell phones,” Bennett added.
Cyberbullying is not limited to students. Parents have also engaged.
“Sometimes when two students don’t get along, a parent of one of the students will become upset with a student bullying their child, and will go online and start bullying the bully,” Bennett said.
The bill would cover both adults and minors who bully a minor child.
The bill also covers several means of cyberbullying, including use of a computer or computer network, building fake profiles or websites and posing as a minor in an electronic chat room or instant messages.
Posting or encouraging others to post private or sexual information pertaining to a minor, posting real or doctored images of the minor on the internet, and signing a minor up for a pornographic internet site is also covered in the bill.
Making a statement, whether true or false, that intends to immediately provoke, or that will likely provoke a third party to stalk of harass a minor is also addressed.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, minors who are the victims of cyberbullying are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, skip school, get bad grades and have low self-esteem with increased instances of health problems, depression and anxiety that in some cases have led to suicide.
“With the changing times, it’s more important than ever that we address these issues,” said Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Technology moves a lot faster than legislation does, so this is an opportunity for us to keep up.
“It truly protects our minors in West Virginia,” Blair added.
The impact cyberbullying has on minors is often overlooked, Blair added.
“Many people do not realize how frequent it occurs and how young the victims are,” she said, adding that she sees its impact firsthand as a youth mentor. “I’ve seen (cyberbullying) victims as young as eight-years old.”
Blair and Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam, two of the youngest state legislators in the United States, both graduated from high school in 2014.
Higginbotham is another sponsor of HB 2655. He said he is aware of suicides committed by minor students, many due to cyberbullying.
“I believe we need to address it and at least get the conversation started,” Higginbotham said. “We can shed some light on this epidemic and do the best we can do to put a stop to it.”
An added level of mediation is something the state should also consider, Bennett said. Conflict resolution classes in high schools should be offered, she suggested.
“Before people start suing one another, there should be an obligation to sit down with a mediator and try to work out the issues,” she said. “If cyberbullying continues following that step, they should go to jail.”