David Molak, 16, a brown-eyed Eagle Scout who excelled at fantasy football and loved the outdoors.
Mallory Grossman, 12, a talented gymnast and cheerleader who sold her own handcrafted jewelry to benefit a local children’s charity.
All were taken from their families by relentless cyberbullying — a growing cancer in our communities that is driving some of our best and brightest young people to suicide.
We’ve all encountered bullies at one point or another, but schoolyard taunts and bathroom graffiti pales in comparison to modern cyberbullying. As technology has progressed, unfortunately, so have the ways people humiliate, intimidate and terrorize each other. Modern methods of online harassment run the gamut and can even overlap with a number of criminal behaviors like revenge porn, stalking and blackmail. All too often, the results are devastating for victims and their families.
In recent years, with the skyrocketing growth of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, cyberbullying has not only gotten more malicious, it’s also become much more widespread. Approximately 16 percent of high school students reported that they were bullied electronically in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, from 2007 to 2015, the CDC also found that suicide rates doubled among teen girls and increased by more than 30 percent among teen boys.
One of the worst parts about cyberbullying is that parents might not even know that it’s happening to their own kids right under their own roofs. Digital devices never sleep and because so many of us rely so heavily on them, cyberbullies have the opportunity to strike anywhere at any hour of the day or night. In addition, information communicated online is pervasive and permanent. Today, a malicious photo or post can be spread thousands of times before the victim even knows it.
And while victims often experience depression, isolation, shame, low self-esteem, anxiety, frustration and distrust of others, the vast majority of them shy away from reporting cyberbullying. Sadly, they often face the fallout alone through a disrupted academic environment, withdrawal from familial and social relationships, and the development or exacerbation of psychological issues. In several horrific cases, victims, like Grace, David and Mallory, have taken their own lives to escape the pain.
Even parents who are alerted to persistent cyberbullying frequently find themselves feeling helpless and with nowhere to turn as they attempt to navigate a remedy through school regulations, law enforcement and the courts.
That’s why, five years ago, Maryland passed landmark anti-cyberbullying legislation named “Grace’s Law” in memory of Grace McComas. Since then, technology has evolved and social media platforms have grown by billions of users. Today, just as we update our phones and computers, we must update our laws to keep pace with technology.
To do so, I have introduced Senate Bills 725 and 726, two bills designed to work hand-in-hand to strengthen our existing statute.
Senate Bill 725 outlines procedures for victims of cyberbullying and revenge porn and allows courts to issue injunctions to stop both. It also empowers school principals to report such behaviors to the police and authorizes expulsion for perpetrators.
Senate Bill 726, known as “Grace’s Law 2.0,” provides a much-needed update to the existing law to reflect the current digital landscape. The bill makes it a crime to intimidate or threaten children online and modernizes the definition of online bullying to address new and emerging forms of social media. Grace’s Law 2.0 prohibits the creation of fake social media profiles, signing minors up for pornographic sites, disseminating doctored images of a minor and other messages or images that are intended to bully or harass a minor. The bill also enhances the criminal penalty for encouraging a child to commit suicide.
Both bills have unanimously passed the Senate and are now in the House. The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on Senate Bill 726 on March 27 at 1 p.m.
With passage of these bills, Maryland has an opportunity to show the nation that we take this pernicious and dangerous behavior seriously. We can teach our young people not to be complicit in crowd-sourced harassment. We can empower victims to regain confidence and control of their lives. And we can send a message that we see cyberbullying for what it is — a crime that threatens the very fabric of our communities, and one that has very real consequences.
Bobby Zirkin is the state senator for Maryland’s 11th District.