Citation[edit | edit source]

Alison M. Smith, Protection of Children Online: Federal and State Laws Addressing Cyberstalking, Cyberharassment, and Cyberbullying (CRS Report RL34651) (Sept. 5, 2008) (full-text).

Overview[edit | edit source]

Federal and state laws have always played a role in protecting minors from criminal victimization. For example, Congress has enacted laws dealing with child pornography, child luring, and child sexual exploitation. However, given its immediacy, anonymity, and accessibility, the Internet offers a forum, through social networking sites, for harassment and other social ills committed against minors. The Internet's nuances present new challenges for federal and state legislators and law enforcement personnel responsible for defining and prosecuting criminal use. This is especially true with the relatively new crime of Internet harassment. The term Internet harassment usually encompasses "cyberstalking," "cyberharassment," and/or "cyberbullying." These activities, when committed against minors, may cause emotional harm. Recent high-profile cases involving teen suicides demonstrate the potentially severe consequences of this emotional harm. As such, legislators are faced with determining how to handle the problem.

Various laws, not specific to minors, govern traditional crimes such as stalking and harassment, which generally include a threat of harm. These laws generally criminalize unlawful conduct that fails to rise to the level of assault or battery. Recognizing that the Internet can be used to stalk or harass individuals, Congress and some states have amended "traditional" stalking and harassment statutes to include Internet activity. However, these statutes are generally inapplicable in situations in which minors suffer emotional harm due to embarrassment or humiliation.

When, if ever, should criminal sanctions be imposed for these incidents? Should legislators amend traditional stalking and harassment statutes to cover these situations? Or should legislators create new crimes covering such activity? Should such activity conducted by a neighbor, for example, be prosecuted on the federal level because the Internet was used? Or should prosecution of such activity remain at the state level? These are just some of the questions legislators may consider in addressing the problem of Internet harassment of children. While these policy considerations are noteworthy, this report focuses on the applicable constitutional constraints legislators may consider in drafting legislation in this area.

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