Cyber-bullying

Cyber-bullying is where someone bullies another person online (e.g. on a social networking site) or by sending emails or messages using a phone or computer.

Cyber-bullying can cause serious problems for everyone involved, and in some cases it can be a crime.

We recommend that you think very carefully before you say things about anyone else online or in an email or message.

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, phone 000.

For free and confidential legal advice about this topic, please contact us here.

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What is cyber-bullying?

If a person bullies someone by sending emails or messages or by saying or doing things online (e.g. on a social networking site) then it’s often called cyber-bullying.

Bullying is repeated behaviour which is done on purpose to make someone feel hurt, upset, scared or embarrassed.

Cyber-bullying can happen in lots of different ways. For example it can include sending or posting nasty or embarrassing comments or photos, spreading rumours, making threats, excluding someone online, or pretending to be someone else to make them look bad.

What criminal laws apply?

In serious cases, cyber-bullying can be a crime.

We explain some of the main laws that could apply below. But please note, the law in this area is complicated and this is just a summary.

If you are worried about anything that you or someone else has sent or posted, you can contact us here.

Using a phone or the internet in a menacing, harassing or offensive way

There is a national law that makes it a crime to use a phone or the internet in a way that is menacing, harassing or offensive. To be considered a crime, the behaviour must be likely to have a serious effect on the person targeted.

Cyber-bullying could be a crime under this law if, for example, it involves frightening someone by threatening to harm them, bothering someone over and over again so that they feel afraid, or if messages, emails or posts make someone feel seriously angry or upset.

Stalking

Cyber-bullying could be a crime under ACT law if it involves stalking someone to purposely make them feel frightened, cause them physical or mental harm or harass them.  

Stalking is where a person keeps giving someone else unwanted attention. Under the law, it can include:

  • contacting someone by text or email or through an online messaging service;
  • saying things about someone online or in emails, texts or other electronic messages; or
  • sending someone offensive material, or posting it online where they can see it.

To be considered stalking, it has to involve acts carried out on at least two separate occasions.

Making threats

Cyber-bullying could be a crime under national law if it involves using a phone or the internet to scare someone by threatening to kill or seriously harm them.

It could also be a crime under ACT law if it involves threatening to kill or seriously hurt someone, or if it involves threatening to damage property.

It is also a crime under ACT law if it involves inciting hatred, revulsion, serious contempt or severe ridicule towards someone because of their race, religion, disability, gender identity, sexuality or their intersex or HIV/AIDS status by publicly threatening someone (e.g. in a public post on social media).

Encouraging suicide

Cyber-bullying could be a crime if it tries to persuade someone to commit suicide.

Under national law, it is a crime to use a phone or the internet to send or post anything that encourages or helps someone to commit suicide. There are also ACT laws which make it a crime to encourage someone to commit suicide, or to help someone commit suicide.

Nude or sexual images

Cyber-bullying could be a crime if it involves sending or posting nude or sexual images of someone without their consent, or threatening to. This is referred to as image-based abuse and this is a crime in the ACT and under national law.

Other criminal laws that could apply

Depending on the circumstances, there are other crimes that could also apply to cyber-bullying.

For example:

  • it is a crime under national and ACT law to log on to someone’s online accounts to access information or change anything without permission;
  • it is a crime under ACT law to ‘publish’ (e.g. post online) untrue things about someone which damages their reputation (defames them) if the aim is to cause them serious harm.

What civil (non-criminal) laws apply?

Cyber-bullying may also breach some civil laws.

For example, it’s against ACT anti-discrimination laws to publicly encourage hatred, revulsion, serious contempt or severe ridicule towards someone because of their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability or their HIV/AIDS or intersex status.

It may also breach national anti-discrimination laws if it is ‘racial hatred’. In some circumstances it could also breach national or ACT law if it involves sexual harassment.

Cyber-bullying may also be considered defamation if online posts or messages damage someone’s reputation because they say untrue things about them. See our page on Defamation for more information.

What could happen if I cyber-bully someone?

If you commit a crime…

If you commit one of the crimes we have talked about above, the consequences can be very serious. You may be investigated and charged by the police, and if you are found guilty you could end up with a criminal record or even go to jail.

The ​maximum​ penalties for some of the offences are high (e.g. up to 3 years in jail for using a phone or the internet in a menacing or harassing way, 2 years in jail for stalking someone, 10 years in jail for sending emails or posts which threaten to kill someone, and 7 years in jail for sending emails or posts which threaten to hurt someone).

If you have committed one or more of the crimes we’ve talked about and you are contacted by the police, we strongly recommend that you get legal advice straight away. You can contact us for help here.

If the cyber-bullying is serious, the eSafety Commissioner could investigate…

The eSafety Commissioner can investigate serious cyber-bullying that targets someone under 18.

If someone makes a report about something you’ve said or done online and the Commissioner decides to act, then it can ask social media services to remove cyber-bullying material, work with everyone involved (including schools and parents) to help stop the cyber-bullying, and/or order you to remove the material, stop the cyber-bullying and/or apologise.

In more serious cases it can refer the cyber-bullying to the police. You can see the Cyber-bullying complaints section of the  eSafety Commissioner’s website for more information.

We recommend that you think very carefully before you say anything about someone online or in an email or message.

If you are having issues with anyone, try not to react to them by email, text or social networking sites.

If something is written down or posted online, it’s never private and it’s permanent – even after you delete it!

If someone cyber-bullies you, try not to retaliate by saying something hurtful back, especially online, as it might make the bullying worse or could be used against you.

What can I do if I think I have cyber-bullied someone?

Get legal advice. If you are worried that you have cyber-bullied someone, we recommend that you get legal advice straight away.

For free legal advice, you can contact us or one of these services:

If you are questioned by the police, in some circumstances you must give your correct name and address e.g. if the police think an offence has been committed and that you can help them investigate it. Other than that, you have the right to remain silent, even if you have been arrested. Try to remain calm, and politely ask to get legal advice before you give them any other information. For more information see our page on My rights with police.

Removing the material. It’s usually best to remove any material you are worried about, especially if someone has asked you to take something down that you’ve said or posted about them or if you have been contacted by the eSafety Commissioner. We suggest you get legal advice or talk to a trusted adult, especially if you are planning to contact the person (e.g. to apologise).

What can I do if I am being cyber-bullied?

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call the police on 000.

Get legal advice. If you are being cyber-bullied, there are things you can do to protect yourself. In serious cases you might be able to get a protection order, or take other legal action against the person.

Every situation is different, and a lawyer can help you understand your options.

For free legal advice, you can contact us or one of these services:

For more information on protection orders you can see our page on Restraining orders.

Talk to someone. Getting someone’s support can make you feel better, and they can start helping you fix the problem. You can talk to a friend, your parents, or other trusted adult.

If you would rather talk to a trained counsellor, you can call one of the services ​listed below ​ for free and private counselling support.

Report it to the police. If you think you are the victim of one of the crimes we’ve talked about above, you can report it to the police. But it’s a good idea to get legal advice  first, especially if you’re worried about anything you’ve said or done or if your situation involves a nude or sexual image of a young person. You should contact the police immediately if someone is threatening or scaring you.

Collect evidence. You’ll need evidence of the cyberbullying if you decide to take further action (e.g. take screenshots or print messages, posts or emails). For help and more information see the eSafety Commissioner’s guides – How to collect evidence and Collecting information.

Stopping the cyber-bullying. If you want to take steps to get cyber-bullying material removed or to stop the cyber-bullying, then you can:

  • report it to the social media service, website or phone company (you can see the eSafety Commissioner’s Social media safety centres for help with this); or
  • if you feel comfortable, contact the person cyberbullying you and ask them to stop and/or to delete any material they have sent or posted.

If you are being cyber-bullied by someone at your school, you can speak to a teacher, the principal or the school counsellor so that the school can help you sort things out. For more information you can see our page on Bullying at School. If you are being cyber-bullied by someone at work, then you can see our page on Bullying in the workplace.

Report it to the eSafety Commissioner. If you are under 18 and the victim of serious cyber-bullying you can make a report to the eSafety Commissioner. The Commissioner can work with you to help stop the cyberbullying and get the material removed.

For more information about how to make a report, including what information you need to include and what you need to do first, see the Cyberbullying complaints and Report cyberbullying sections of the eSafety Commissioner’s website. Note that the Commissioner can tell other people about your complaint, including the person responsible or the police, but (unless you are in danger) it will try to ask your permission first.

Take steps to stay safe online. There are steps you can take to stay safe online and to stop people contacting or bullying you, for example by blocking or unfriending people who upset you and keeping your privacy settings private. We recommend you take a look at some of the following resources to make sure you’ve done everything you can to protect yourself from online abuse of any kind.

What can I do if I have seen cyber-bullying?

If you know someone who is being cyber-bullied or you have seen cyber-bullying online then it is important that you don’t join in, forward or share material or comment on anything. This could get you into trouble, as well as making things worse for the person being bullied. It is best if you leave any conversations or group chats if people are being nasty about someone.

There are things you can do to help stop the bullying and to support the people involved. For more information see the Australian Human Rights Commission webpage on What you can do to stop bullies – Be a supportive bystander, or visit one of the websites below.

Counselling and support services

If you would like to talk to a trained counsellor, the following services offer free and private counselling support.

  • Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 (available 24/7, for young people between 5 and 25)
  • eHeadspace 1800 650 890 (available 9am to 1am, everyday, for young people between 12 and 25)
  • Lifeline 13 11 14 (available 24/7, for all ages)
  • QLife 1800 184 527 (available 3pm to midnight, everyday, for all ages)
  • 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732 (available 24/7, for all ages)
  • Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78 (available 24/7, for men of all ages)

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