Social Media & Bullying: How Tech Has Transformed Teen Tormenting


Teen attitudes have long been scrutinized by scientists and inquisitive adults, and findings over the years indicate bullying is no new trend. Even before the internet, teens have found ways to express themselves and torment others. Today, however, experts note how substantially adolescent behavior has been transformed by technology – particularly when it comes to how they treat one another

A recent article from AZ Family takes a deep dive into the role smartphones and social media play in teen bullying; roles which have given rise to the phrase “cyberbullying.”

  • According to Pew Research, less than half of all teenagers in the U.S. owned smartphones in 2013. By 2018, that rose to 95%, with close to half of teens saying they use them constantly. The most popular platforms? Social media and sharable content the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
  • At the same time social media use rose among teens, data from the CDC showed an increase in teen suicide rates.

In response to these trends, awareness about cyberbullying and efforts to curb it have grown. From bully-blocking apps and First Lady Melania Trump’s anti-cyberbullying initiative to growing research and educational campaigns, the issue has become a focus. However, the internet’s numerous outlets for expression provide a pervasive and powerful platform for bullying that shows no signs of slowing.

How Social Media Serves as a Breeding Ground for Teen Bullying

To understand how social media can impact teen bullying, researchers have explored a number of factors:

  • Sharing magnifies impact – Though it may include chat-based direct messaging and texting, cyberbullying has expanded across multiple platforms that, according to ASU researchers, can be used to strengthen victims’ shame. An embarrassing photo posted online can be devastating for a teen, but when that photo is shared or liked tens or hundreds of times, the impact of a single bullying act is magnified.
  • Anonymity – Social media allows more teens to engage in bullying behaviors they might not otherwise have engaged in without the anonymity provided by a username. Researchers say factors of traditional face-to-face bullying (such as physical size or social status) are largely insignificant behind the screen. The result: teens who have historically been less likely to bully in person may be more likely to do so online.
  • Mob mentality – Experts have noted how people who speak and act as parts of online communities or groups often behave in ways they would not as individuals. It’s a lot like mob mentality, where there’s a much lower sense of personal responsibility.
  • Images and videos – Smartphones offer access to high quality image- and video-capturing capabilities that, although are great for the memories, can also be used to intensify bullying and preserve experiences of torment that can then be shared.

Cracking Down: An Issue for Schools or Courts?

As of now, there’s no federal law prohibiting bullying, either online or in person. It’s an issue addressed by states, where a patchwork of laws and school system policies govern procedures for investigating and addressing incidents.

In many states, lawmakers are beginning to propose and pass legislation directly targeting cyberbullying. Arizona, for example, makes it a potential misdemeanor. The consequence carries more than just an injunction prohibiting contact with victims.

Still, experts and advocates are torn between whether schools or courts should handle the crack down on cyberbullying. Many have called attention to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which although excludes defamation, obscenity, and threats to incite lawlessness, can be highly subjective for juries and judges.

While some say there’s a need to create a new category of speech beyond what’s currently excluded under the First Amendment, others have likened the issue to the Second Amendment; though guns pose risks and can cause deaths, protections still exist because of the Constitution. Similarly, though people may be impacted negatively by the right to free speech, that right is enshrined in the First Amendment.

Free speech arguments aside, there are still ways for teens to find themselves in major trouble with the law:

  • Title IX regulations can be implicated in matters involving sexual assault and harassment;
  • Images and videos, which don’t fall under free-speech protections, can give rise to crimes involving child pornography or revenge porn;
  • Criminal charges for telecommunications harassment, menacing by stalking, and other similar offenses.

Columbus Attorneys Defending Teens & Young Adults

While lawmakers and educators debate over the most effective ways to address cyberbullying, the legal gray areas and lack of clarity which exist now can pose significant risks to teens accused of conduct that exposes them to disciplinary action from schools, or serious criminal charges – both of which can come with life-altering consequences.

At Koffel Brininger Nesbitt, our legal team has an active practice defending young clients in high school and college cases involving Title IX, cyberstalking, sex crimes, hazing, and other criminal offenses. Call (614) 675-4845 or contact us online to speak with an attorney about your case and defense.