Austria has been named as the worst country in Europe for bullying, with a recent OECD study showing that every second school child suffers from the effects of bullying – not just in the form of physical and verbal abuse but also from derogatory comments and intimate photos posted on social media sites such as Facebook.
Since the beginning of January online bullying is now a criminal offence. Previously police used other legislation – such as anti-stalking and defamation laws – to prosecute serious cases of cyber abuse.
Thorsten Behrens from the Austrian Institute for Applied Telecommunications (ÖIAT) told the Kurier newspaper that police will now have to change their approach to such cases. “Police may find it difficult to assess individual cases, not every dispute will be a case of bullying.”
Another issue will be identifying the ringleader in cases where a large group of people are all bullying the same victim online. “Probably we will see cases where more than one person is charged, and only a longer investigation will determine who started the bullying,” Behrens said.
Police spokesman Roman Hahslinger said that as soon as a death threat is posted online, the case will be passed onto IT experts at the State Office of Criminal Investigations.
Cyberbullying can affect any age groups but is a particular problem among teenagers and children. “Where insults and abuse used to stop at the school gates, victims are now being tormented at home on social networks. Even when a young victim changes schools the bullying can continue as all the information about them is easily available online,” Behrens said.
The recent report from the OECD showed that a staggering 30 percent of teenage girls in Austria claim to have been bullied via the Internet or their mobile phone. Under Austrian law teenagers under the age of 14 cannot be prosecuted – meaning that many cases of cyberbullying may go unpunished. Police spokesman Hahslinger said that cases where underage children are involved will be handed over to the Youth Welfare Office.
Punishments handed out under the new law will depend on the intensity of the bullying. If death threats are posted, or the victim is driven to attempt suicide or does take their own life this could result in a jail sentence of up to three years for anyone over the age of 14.
Earlier this year a 15-year-old girl in France killed herself after an intimate film featuring her and her boyfriend was shared online.
Many perpetrators are able to cover their tracks quickly online and police advise victims to take screenshots of any offensive and upsetting postings made by bullies – and urge not to ignore the cyber abuse.
The United States has more extensive legislation on cyberbullying than the European Union, but Sweden was the first EU country to introduce a law against cyberbullying and has the least amount of school bullying in the western world, according to the OECD report.