Is cyber bullying a cyber crime?

Avatar photo

By Andrew Chan on

The suicide of Amanda Todd shined a light on the issue, now we must act, says Andrew Chan in his shortlisted entry to the BARBRI International Cyber Crime Blogging Prize

Amanda Todd’s video, viewed by millions, spurred a global discussion about online harassment earlier this year.

The heartbreaking video detailed the bullying Amanda suffered after her erotic photos were published online. Todd was lured by a stranger to take such photos on a webcam. They were later published on a Facebook page and sent to people in her community. She had to change schools multiple times because of her emotional breakdown. The convicted man was eventually sentenced to 11 years for blackmailing dozens of young women around the world into performing sex acts in front of webcams.

It is saddening to hear Amanda’s story but we must bear in mind that Amanda is not the only victim of cyber bullying; society must start to address cyber bullying more seriously.

What is cyber bullying?

Cyber bullying is the use of electronic communication devices to bully a person.

Electronic communication can include the use of computers and mobile phones. It could be by means of emails, text messages, social media and others. As technology advances, there are more potential avenues for cyber bullying. Cyber bullying, harassment and hoaxes have been linked to teen depression, low self-esteem and tragedies of suicide.

Examples of cyber bullying include posting offensive comments or photos on social media or even creating fake online profiles to belittle another person. Cyber bullying is widespread in the world, particularly amongst young people. A national survey conducted by the charity BullyingUK found that 42% of people under 25-years-old have felt unsafe online. 56% of under 25s said that they had witnessed others having been bullied online. The internet has evolved into a tool to abuse, and has become a weapon for criminals.

The main issue is: are current legal and social measures sufficient to protect these susceptible victims?

What is the relation between cyber bullying and cyber crime?

The current UK law lacks a definition specifying what type of behaviour and actions constitute cyber bullying. The gaping omission in the law creates a concern in the country. However, by committing an act of cyber bullying, a person may be committing a criminal offence under various legislation.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 address harassment and threatening behaviours.

The police have previously used the Protection from Harassment Act to prosecute the sending of offensive emails. Such messages will also constitute an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 as one of the cyber bullying laws.

Where mobile bullying is concerned, section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it a criminal offence to send, via any electronic communication network, a message that is deemed “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. A person can be heavily fined and sentenced up to six months if found guilty of the offence. The Communications Act 2003 is a specific, focused and relatively new piece of legislation that was introduced to directly address the high suicide rates associated with cyber bullying and online abuse due to the rise of social media.

On an education level, all UK state schools are required to have anti-bullying policies under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 and independent schools have similar obligations under The Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003. These includes policies and guidelines for dealing with cyber bullying against students.

Parliament has yet to make new laws on combating cyber bullying. In fact, lawmakers will face difficulties defining cyber bullying. It can potentially cover different categories of behaviours, via different means. Further, if charges are brought against the bully, to what extent will the defendant’s freedom of speech be impaired? There are also issues in policing online offences when they are committed in non-UK jurisdictions.

How should society tackle the problem then?

Schools, authorities, private sectors and parents have to shoulder responsibility to ensure that cyber bullying is seen to be wrong and socially unacceptable. A common objective is via education.

Earlier this year, Google has responded to a barrage of criticism that it must do more to tackle online abuse by launching a series of workshops for teenagers on how to tackle hate speech and fake news. The workshop was launched by YouTube, for young people aged 13 to 18 in cities across the UK to raise awareness around issues such as tolerance, empathy and abuse online. Google is also exploring more innovative ways to use technology, to partner with experts to tackle online abuse.

To help their children combat cyber bullying, parents should not close down their social media, but help them develop resilience and understanding of themselves and their needs, and to help them find ways of meeting those needs in a better way.

The European Commission has also addressed the issue of cyber bullying by launching a Safer Internet Day, providing information to parents and children about internet safety and responsible internet behaviours. In addition, the Commission has encouraged social networking companies to keep young people safe online through self-regulation. These are all positive advancements which are necessary to combat the rapid increase in cyber bullying.


Young people in the UK spend more time online than ever before. In this complex world, there is an urgent need to help young people embrace the positive aspects of connectivity; we must also support them to manage the negative influences with the collaborative effort of all parties. Our credible legislative framework shall be one of our core pillars as protective measures against cyber bullying.

Laws against cyber bullying are not a privilege, they are a necessity in today’s world. As technology continues on its path of exponential development, legislation specifically focused on the issues of cyber bullying is necessary to protect the victims. The issues will continue to dominate the media and society in upcoming years. It is of critical importance that a specific legislative framework is introduced to attempt to address these issues as soon as possible. Direct and focused legislation would give greater clarity and restore confidence in the public.

Andrew Chan is a University of Manchester law graduate. His entry was shortlisted in the BARBRI International Cyber Crime Blogging Prize. You can read the winning entry here.

BARBRI International will be hosting a 4 July Independence Day party TONIGHT at its London office. Register to attend here.

Want to write for the Legal Cheek Journal?

Find out more

Please bear in mind that the authors of many Legal Cheek Journal pieces are at the beginning of their career. We'd be grateful if you could keep your comments constructive.

Join the conversation