Action against cyberbullying

With technology and social media taking everyone by storm, a new movement is online abuse. This is also known as cyberbullying and refers to when a person is bullied or harassed by using electronic devices, such as cell phones and computers. Cyberbullying is quite prevalent under children, for example, a catfight on social media or texts where one child is calling another child ugly names to such a degree that the other child’s dignity is being infringed.

As this is quite a new development in a legal sense, South Africa does not have specific legislation that deals with cyberbullying. This does not mean that there are no consequences for cyberbullying. Victims of cyberbullying can rely on remedies offered by criminal and/or civil law.

Depending on the nature of the acts committed by the perpetrator, s/he can be criminally charged with the following:

  • Crimen iniuria: this refers to where the dignity of the victim is injured, for example, if a child is being teased and humiliated by using improper or racially offensive language.
  • Sexual exploitation and grooming: this refers to threatening someone to obtain something from him/her, such as pornographic images.
  • Criminal defamation: this refers to the intentional and unlawful publication of a matter concerning another person which damages his/her reputation, for example, posting lies about someone on social media for everyone to see.                                                                       

It should be noted that if the cyberbully is a child, there are different criminal procedures that will be followed under the Child Justice Act. For example, if the cyberbully is younger than 10 years old, s/he does not have criminal capacity and cannot be found guilty of a criminal offence. However, this does not mean that s/he will not face the consequences of his/her actions (one of the consequences is that the cyberbully may be referred to counselling).

There are also civil remedies available to the victim which are the following:

  • A protection order can be obtained in terms of the Protection from Harassment Act against the cyberbully at a Magistrate’s Court. A child can apply for a protection order without assistance, however, it is advisable for the child to consult with his/her parents, legal guardians, teacher or any other reliable person to assist him/her in bringing such an application.
    • The parents or legal guardians of a child may report the cyberbully to the school’s governing, if applicable. The school will hold a disciplinary hearing and discipline the cyberbully in terms of the school’s Code of Conduct, which might lead him/her being suspended.

If a person is the victim of cyberbullying, it is important that the necessary evidence is kept. For example, to capture the post, text message or picture by taking a screenshot of it. Text messages or e-mails linked to the cyberbullying must also not be deleted. This must be done in order to ensure that the victim can provide evidence of the cyberbullying if a criminal/civil case is opened against the perpetrator.

Despite the progress made to counter cyberbullying in South Africa, specific legislation dealing with cyberbullying must still be introduced and implemented to protect our youth from online harassment and intimidation.