Is Legal Action the Best Way to Curtail Cyberbullying? Instagram Just Offered Another Option

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By: Etahjayne Harris,

Instagram, one of the most popular social networks worldwide, has over 500 million monthly active users as of September 2016.[1] The photo-sharing app enables users to take and upload pictures and videos and share them publicly or privately on the app, as well as on a variety of other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. For teens, “Instagram is much more than a medium to share photos on—it’s an extension of their identities.” [2] Instagram’s co-founder Kevin Systrom has said that the app was created to, “make it easy for people to share their lives in a beautiful way.”[3] While the offered use and purpose behind Instagram is of a positive nature, the app has unfortunately been used as a tool for cyberbullying. Teens may be more susceptible to cyberbullying due to the significant role social media plays in their lives.

The National Conference of State Legislatures defines cyberbullying as, “the willful and repeated use of cell phones, computers, and other electronic communication devices to threaten others.”[4] A recent study done by the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) has shown that over 25% of students in middle school and high school have been cyberbullied in their lifetime.[5] While cyberbullying can take place on any variety of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat, it has been argued that cyberbullying on Instagram is especially bad, “because it’s a very public platform that people use to post photos of themselves—inviting everyone and anyone to judge their appearances in the comment sections.”[6] For teens whose social media presence is closely tied to their self-identity, the effects of cyberbullying on that identity is particularly worrisome.

You may wonder amid these distressing statistics, whether Instagram has taken any measures to mitigate its cyberbullying problem and whether there are legal consequences for cyberbullying. On September 12, 2016, Instagram implemented an update that allows its users, “ to block ‘inappropriate comments’ on their posts and set filters for specific words.”[7] This update gives users more control over what comments get posted on their pictures beyond simply having the ability to delete unwanted comments or block specific users. In a statement released on September 12, 2016, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said that the app is working towards, “keeping Instagram a safe place for self-expression.” This update gives users the chance to push back against cyberbullies and inappropriate comments generally. While this update is great and gives users more control, what are the legal remedies for the victims of cyberbullying?

Nearly every state has enacted some form of a student cyberbullying statute.[8] To be considered cyberbullying, information technology must be used to, “deliberately threaten, harass, or intimidate another person.”[9] Under many state statutes, state schools may be required to specifically address and correct behavior that may be considered cyberbullying through their policies.[10] The swift spread of social networking apps like Instagram and Facebook has been met with an increase in cyberbullying litigation both in the federal and state courts.[11]A frequent issue in applying these student cyberbullying laws is determining whether a school is responsible for protecting students from off-campus online harassment.[12] There is no clear answer as of today.

In spite of these student cyberbullying laws, finding a legal remedy for cyberbullying is complicated by the fact that cyberbullying encompasses such a wide range of behavior. A claim of cyberbullying is not necessarily viable simply because the victim was offended by what someone else commented on their Instagram post, for example; a claim is generally viable if the alleged conduct violated a criminal statute, violated a state student cyberbullying law, or constituted a traditional civil tort. [13] The issue of finding legal relief for cyberbullying is further complicated by the fact that a cyberbully can post or comment anonymously on social media apps like Instagram, making it difficult to trace the origin of the harassing comments. So while there are legal remedies in place for teen victims of cyberbullying, those remedies may be difficult to obtain. For now it appears that the most feasible way to combat cyberbullying on Instagram is to stop it in its tracks by using the new comment filter option.

 

[1] See Instagram, Number of monthly active Instagram users from January 2013 to June 2016 (in millions), Statista, http://www.statista.com/statistics/253577/number-of-monthly-active-instagram-users/ (last visited Sep. 13, 2016).

[2] Nina Godlewki, If you have over 25 photos on Instagram, you’re no longer cool, TechInsider (May 26, 2016) http://www.techinsider.io/teens-curate-their-instagram-accounts-2016-5.

[3] Michael Noer, A Conversation with Instagram’s Co-Founder Kevin Systrom, Forbes (Apr. 9, 2012), http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelnoer/2012/04/09/a-conversation-with-instagrams-co-founder-kevin-systrom/#6c6ae93d5d64.

[4] Cyberbulliying, National Conference of State Legislatures (Dec. 14, 2010), http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/cyberbullying.aspx (last visited 9/13/2016, 5:15pm).

[5] Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, Cyberbullying Victimization (Feb. 2015), http://cyberbullying.org/2015-data.

[6] Elise Moreau, What is a Troll, and What is Internet Trolling, About Tech (Feb. 25, 2016), http://webtrends.about.com/od/Internet-Culture/a/What-Is-Internet-Trolling.htm.

[7] Brett Molina, Instagram Update Lets Users Filter Comments, USA Today (Sept. 12, 2016), http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/09/12/instagram-update-lets-users-filter-comments/90260384/.

[8] See Gary D. Nissenbaum and Laura J. Magedoff, Potential Legal Approaches to a Cyberbullying Case, The Young Lawyer Vol.17, No. 9 (Aug. 2013), http://www.americanbar.org/publications/young_lawyer/2012-13/july_august_2013_vol_17_no_9/potential_legal_approaches_to_a_cyberbullying_case.html.

[9] Id.

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

Image Source:

http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hub/176530/file-18530001-jpg/images/cyberbullying.jpg

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