What Do I Do If I'm Being Cyberstalked in Florida?
Attorneys' advice on putting a stop to online bullies
on July 2, 2018
Updated on March 21, 2022
Bullying and stalking are unpleasant realities, even when they are only virtual.
“When I grew up, [bullying] occurred, but it happened more at school, physically,” says Eric “E.J.” Hubbs, a criminal defense attorney at Hubbs Law in Miami. “Now, it’s evolved to that happening on Facebook, on Snapchat, through text messages, the creation of a web page or weblog assuming the identity of another person.”
Cybercrime and online harassment laws
Online stalking and bullying both fall under Florida’s cyberstalking law. “For the most part, you hear ‘cyberstalking’ used more with adults,” says intellectual property attorney Terry Sanks, with Beusse Wolter Sanks & Maire in Orlando. “There’s a breakup in a relationship, and whoever felt scorned is the one who is stalking the other person. Cyberbullying, you hear more with respect to kids, where they’re doing something online to be mean.”
Hubbs adds that cyberbullying is technically not a crime; it’s the stalking statute that makes it criminal. “For example,” he says, “someone who communicates with that other person 100 times within a month and may not make a threat, but may harass them by saying they’re ugly, fat, et cetera.”
Stalking or bullying crosses the state’s legal line when someone repeatedly and maliciously sends electronic communications that cause another person serious emotional distress with no legitimate purpose.
“This is taken seriously in Florida,” says criminal defense attorney Jay Rooth with Moses & Rooth Attorneys at Law in Orlando. Cyberstalking can range from first-degree misdemeanor to third-degree felony. And the state in 2008 passed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, named for a child who committed suicide after being cyberbullied. It requires school districts to adopt policies prohibiting bullying and harassment.
Have an offline discussion
Parents can take measures, too. Sanks suggests putting colored tape or a webcam cover over the camera on a child’s laptop. Peeping Toms can hack into cameras, or friends can pressure a teen to share nude photos, which can lead to bullying.
Sanks says parents should tell children any image shared over the internet and via cellphone apps or texts is being saved somewhere. “Probably right at the start of middle school, or the latter part of elementary, is when those discussions should start,” he says. “In general, when a child is first given access to the internet without direct parental supervision.”
Kids risk retaliation if they report being cyberbullied. “It’s very difficult to decide when enough is enough,” Hubbs says.
If you go to law enforcement, Rooth suggests taking serious action to stop the bullying: “Consider having a court issue an immediate temporary injunction.”
How do you prove emotional distress? Hubbs suggests getting therapy, or keeping a diary. “A child’s testimony can also constitute evidence of substantial emotional distress,” he adds.
Also valid: parents’ observations of their children. “Any change in a child’s conduct from what happened before harassment started would be very relevant,” he says.
“Proving these cases is often very difficult,” Hubbs notes. “A lot of times, it’s not necessarily that smoking gun of ‘I’m going to kill you;’ ‘I’m gonna fight you after school.’ It’s communicating with someone 100 times over one to two months and writing mean things about them online. The case is driven by paperwork.”
When any case of cyberstalking—against a child or adult—becomes serious enough to involve law enforcement, Rooth has one piece of advice: “Preserve the evidence.
“Take screenshots, take pictures and save the files so that it’s easily presented to law enforcement or the court. … Organize it clearly for law enforcement so they’re not scrolling through 500 messages to find the one with the physical threat.”