Whereas content may be offensive in a non-specific way, harassment directs obscenities and derogatory comments at specific individuals focusing for example on gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation.
There are instances where committing a crime using a computer can lead to an enhanced sentence. For example, in the case of United States v. Neil Scott Kramer, the defendant was given an enhanced sentence according to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual §2G1.3(b)(3) for his use of a cell phone to « persuade, induce, entice, coerce, or facilitate the travel of, the minor to engage in prohibited sexual conduct. » Kramer appealed the sentence on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to convict him under this statute because his charge included persuading through a computer device and his cellular phone technically is not a computer. Although Kramer tried to argue this point, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual states that the term ‘computer’ « means an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high-speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions, and includes any data storage facility or communications facility directly related to or operating in conjunction with such device. »
In the United States alone, Missouri and over 40 other states have passed laws and regulations that regard extreme online harassment as a criminal act. These acts can be punished on a federal scale, such as US Code 18 Section 2261A, which states that using computers to threaten or harass can lead to a sentence of up to 20 years, depending on the action taken.
Several countries outside of the United States have also created laws to combat online harassment. In China, a country that supports over 20 percent of the world’s internet users, the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council passed a strict law against the bullying of young people through a bill in response to the Human Flesh Search Engine. The United Kingdom passed the Malicious Communications Act, among other acts from 1997 to 2013, which stated that sending messages or letters electronically that the government deemed « indecent or grossly offensive » and/or language intended to cause « distress and anxiety » can lead to a prison sentence of six months and a potentially large fine. Australia, while not directly addressing the issue of harassment, has grouped the majority of online harassment under the Criminal Code Act of 1995. Using telecommunication to send threats or harass and cause offense was a direct violation of this act.
Although freedom of speech is protected by law in most democratic societies (in the US this is done by the First Amendment), it does not include all types of speech. In fact, spoken or written « true threat » speech/text is criminalized because of « intent to harm or intimidate. » That also applies for online or any type of network-related threats in written text or speech.
Cyberbullying has increased drastically with the growing popularity of online social networking. As of January 2020, 44% of adult internet users in the United States have « personally experienced online harassment. » Children who experience online harassment deal with negative and sometimes life threatening side effects. In 2021, reports displayed 41% of children developing social anxiety, 37% of children developing depression, and 26% of children having suicidal thoughts.