Cyberbullying – The Ugly Side of Social Media

We have all seen the comical photos of Walmart shoppers in various modes of dress and undress. One performer has even made several humorous music videos depicting the weirdos and crazies.

Facebook itself had its origins by showing photos of college students and allowing people to rate them as “hot or not”. It’s all in good fun, right? No harm, no foul.

So what is going on in Emmitsburg, Maryland, home of the US Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy, where a mother has declared war on cyberbullying after a firefighter posted photos of her daughter on line accompanied by unflattering comments.

Sherry Myers is furious about photos of her daughter Jayden that were posted online by a Pennsylvania firefighter that mocks her shoes, and asks people to guess whether Jayden is a boy or a girl.

It’s the other side of the laughter… the painful side… the ugly side of social media.

Here is a link to Sherry’s Facebook page, which she has aptly named Justice for Jayden. Spend some time there and read some of the comments from those who have been hurt by cyberbullies.

Here is more on the story itself.

While all the facts have yet to be sorted out in the Myers case – let me make a few points about where we are law wise on cyberbullying.

Here in the US, the laws are way behind the times. While some states have enacted laws to address cyberbullying, most states rely upon tort privacy laws developed in the 1800s and 1900s. These laws did a decent job until fairly recently. Today they are being asked to address an entirely new problem… and it may be a task they are not up to.

Is it really an entirely new problem? Bullying has always been around and always will be – but when it comes to spreading hurtful information on a massive scale – I say what we are facing is an entirely new problem.

In the late 1800s, how would one go about spreading embarrassing rumors, malicious falsehoods, or even breach a person’s right to privacy on a massive scale? The options were pretty limited and usually required large sums of money to take out newspaper ads, or influence reporters and editors in order to spread a story very far. The spreading of the story would be relatively slow compared with today – and the courts did offer some remedies that could address those mean spirited activities. Newspapers also had to be concerned about such suits and thus had an incentive to do some self-policing of what was published.

The 1900s brought us new means of mass communications through radio and later television. Still these methods of communication were beyond the financial means of most people and the law offered realistic remedies to address any wrongdoing that did occur. Like the newspapers, radio and television stations themselves had good reason to watch what was said out of fear of becoming the target of such a suit.

But what about spreading malicious information in the Internet Age – where virtually anyone can communicate with thousands, even millions, for free and virtually instantly? What about the fact that people who have no financial footprint to speak of can spread malicious information to an unprecedented degree with little to no risk of legal consequences? No self-policing… they are judgment-proof… or close enough to make the cost of a civil suit unrealistic for most people.

How exactly does the law – developed originally to address problems back in the Pony Express days, give Sherry and Jayden Myers some measure of comfort, some justice?

And just as importantly, how do we, as members of the Internet community, draw our own lines about what is and is not fair game when it comes to humor, satire and parody?

The two issues are linked… or at least they should be.

Can we protect Jayden and still have our funny Walmart photos? Is there a line that can be drawn that makes one OK and the other not?

The law should reflect the ethical choices we as a society believe in.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

  • As usual, an extremely thought provoking post. I think that a lot of the problems could be traced back to maturity and some personal self-control. I have had plenty of moments where an inappropriate comment or post might have been amusing (in context), but before even committing it to the keyboard, said, “Do I really want this attributed to me or my family and friends?” And even though we say our department is blameless for our posts, we all know how that works out in social media…

    At the risk of poking a bear, it seems to me almost the equivalent of giving a child a weapon. They don’t understand the power they happen to be holding and the lives it can ruin if used inappropriately. There are plenty of responsible users out there, but the focus is, unfortunately, on the misusers, simply because of the damage they create.

    The internetz. They aren’t for the faint of heart. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks Mick

      I agree – there is an aspect of social media use that lends itself to impulsive decisions (immature… childish) with a bit of naivete towards (obliviousness to) the possible consequences. Then there is the risk of something we say or do in cyberspace going viral… infrequent, unlikely, but nevertheless there. Combine the two and its like the wild west where virtually anything goes… and the less you have to lose, the less folks fear the consequences.

  • john k. murphy

    Curt – Excellent post. From our local Issaquah (WA)newspaper, in 2011, County prosecutors charged two preteen Issaquah girls, 11 and 12, with cyberstalking and first-degree computer trespassing after investigators said the girls posted sexually explicit messages and photos on another girl’s Facebook page. The charges stated the girls accessed the Facebook account of a 12-year-old girl, and then posted the explicit material and sent out solicitations for sex, court documents state. The prosecutor went on to state, “This case reveals the dark side of social media sites used by young people,” he said in a statement. “Many kids think that on a social media site that their actions will be anonymous and that they are free to use it as weapon to bully, harass and intimidate another person.”

    A judge signed off on anti-harassment measures that keep a distance between the victim and her two classmates. The judge also ordered that the 12-year-old defendant not to use her computer at home without parental supervision. The 12-year-old defendant is charged with one count of cyberbullying and one count of computer trespass, both Class C felonies.

    In a quick survey across the country we are seeing this occuring everywhere and not only for the kids. Adults are engaging this same behavior.

    • John

      It pains me to have to say this – but I think the criminal aspect may be the only viable solution to these kinds of outrages. The civil liability… unless the person who does the bullying has deep pockets there is little to no incentive to go after them.

      I have been reflecting on the legal principle that there shall be no wrong without a remedy. There is a reason for that: if society cannot provide a remedy for someone’s injury, people may be tempted to fashion one of their own.

      How do we address these kinds outrages… and once we figure that out… where do we draw the line between legitimate satire and bullying/harassment/invasion of privacy?

      This is not an easy topic.

  • john k. murphy


    Good points. Most of the cyberbullies have no cash, many are children or teenagers who primarily communicate through facebook or other social media. Of course there is the case of the Fire Chief in Montana, so adults engage in this new found freedom to bully at a different level .There is a feeling of anonymity when posting and instead of a face to face confrontation or bullying, there is the choice of electronic media. Unfortunately bullying is bullying regardless of the method chosen. Criminal penalties appear to the remedy.

  • ukfbbuff

    Hi Curt

    Once again “You Can’t make this stuff up”.

    Of course their is the “W-T-F” aspect of why this firefighter in 2013 would take a picture of a child Not his own?

    And then post it online.

    Stuid is as stupid does, just as in the Civilian “Batt. Chief” for LA County FD caught drinking beer while on duty and driving his FD Staff car back to his office.

    “Stupid is as Stupid does”.

  • Luke

    I think the emergency services sector world wide has a lot to learn about bullying in general. The days of hazing and initiations are gone. They have no place in ANY workplace, especially one that is about teamwork and looking out for each other.

    This applies to both volunteer and career staff….

  • Legeros

    Noticed on the FB site, narrative comments that a state trooper visited the FF’s residence, and persuaded (might be my word) the FF to delete all images off his phone and computer. Wonder if that was a legal order, or a “it’s in your best interest to do this” suggestion? The state has a law regarding all-party consent to being recorded, I am reading in comments related to this story.

  • JZ-10467

    This story took place in my hometown. It appears the police haven’t pressed any charges against the Firefighter as they are all friends, close friends (Officer’s Discretion). However they charged a person an innocent citizen who posted a few comments on Fire Departments public form Website. Explain that one! Due to the child being a minor and an adult taking the pictures and posting them are Cyber Harassment and not just Cyber Bullying. These small town Police Officers getting personal involved seems fishy!

  • Lisa Craiger

    They charged the citizen because the dept posted several times on their page not to post on their fb site anything that had to due with the circumstances of this little girl the fb page was used for training and acknowledgement purposes only even gave number and email address to contact and she kept posting….even making rude comments. Laughing at the number of likes they had compared to the likes that justice for jayden had. I am 100% agreeance with justice for jayden but I am not agreeing to throwing a entire dept under attack because they did comply with what these people wanted when they wanted it. This dept has protocol to follow and by laws to follow and these people didnt care they just what they wanted when they wanted it.

  • Mom of 3

    It’s interesting that they will press charges on a citizen of the community who made a comment on a community fire department facebook page. But will stand behind a ranking officer whom THEIR community has trusted with THEIR children and has taken photos of a 5 year old little girl…not ONLY to question her gender, but her future sexuality!! ANYONE who believes that the accusations and comments he made had ANYTHING to do with fire/EMS training are complete FOOLS!! There is NO SUCH thing as “Gender Determination Training”!! The things that this so called firefighter has done and said SHOULD bring shame to his fire department!

  • JZ-10467

    @ Lisa Craiger. I happened to have seen what was posted. It was only two comments and they were not threaten or harassing in anyway. It’s ironic how the police found something to charge this person with but couldn’t find one thing for the one who did all the evil deeds. From what I recall it was something along the lines of “You all should be more worried about what happened to the little girl instead of worrying about your 125 likes, what a joke”. The Firehouse’s posted how they wanted to kept up their good reputation of their company. If that’s the case, they need to stop covering for this guy and take action. From what I understand, he was wearing a Firehouse Jacket while the incident took place and when doing so, you are supposed to represent your firehouse or department and are held to a higher standard. Sorry but I have to agree with this Citizen, 125 likes for a page is not much and they should be working with the mother instead of trying to cover up for this guy and worried about their page. If you‘re taking it personal, could you be a Troll for the Police or Fire Fighters? I do respect the line of work as I have family and many friends in these lines of work. But what this grown man did to a 5 year old child is inexcusable and needs to be address instead of covering it up and praying it goes away soon. By pressing charges, they are going to be bringing more negative attention to them instead of making it go away.

  • angelz

    Woayea wait a minute!! Since when has the FuZZ Busters started patrolling Face book for basic comments that fall under the First Amendment? This world is starting to go Crazy! Guess they don’t have enough to keep them all busy, small town officers.

  • Meep

    This man made a horrible, stupid and mean mistake. The smartest of people can often do the most stupid things. I’m betting it is a mistake that he will never make again and has learned something from his disgraceful actions. He should be ashamed for everyone to know what he has done, but I do not think that he should lose his job or his place in the community.
    The mother is very angry as she feels that her child was hurt. I get that. Any mother would be horrified and angry. I do not feel that any pain would have been caused to the child if the mother had not let the child view the pictures. The little girl is 5 years old and should not be looking at Facebook or any other website that does not have a “Children Only” based content. I’m baffled and confused as to why anyone would show their child something like that. Anyway, I do think that it is a good thing that the mother squawked loudly about the event, but wish that she could have kept her little one from being exposed to such things. It can bring awareness to everyone that they should really think about the consequences that their actions can cause. I do not know any of the people involved, but hope that they can come together in some way and find a way to get over the whole thing. Best of luck to all of them.

  • Catdog

    It never ceases to amaze me how everyone is so quick to judge the mother and her actions? This family was getting medical help for their sick child and never asked this man “hey can you come take pictures of my daughter and post them on Facebook.?”What he did was inexcusable, making fun of an innocent child. Then he tells the mother that he was using those pictures as a learning tool because he wanted to make sure all emergency responders were making sure of the sex of their patient if unconscious before treating them. He said it makes a difference in how you treat the patient. This is what I don’t understand, I can tell you first hand that sounds like a lot of B.S. to me!How would you feel if that was your five year old being exposed on a social media sight questioning her sexuality.As far as the child seeing the pictures there’s no harm done,but if the child was exposed to all the ridicule and comments then I would agree it is wrong. If you read the mother’s page the child saw the pictures but has been shielded from everything else to protect her. I’ve been following this story since it surfaced and will continue to do so! How do we know what we would do or how we would handle a situation of this nature if we were faced with this? Everyone is so quick to judge this mom but as I see it, she was protecting her children just like any other parent should be doing. What about the man who took the pictures? He is the vice president of a volunteer fire company, someone who is a community leader.This is someone who people look up to and respect. He is to serve and protect not bully and degrade.A man of his stature truly stepped over the line and should be held accountable for his actions! His actions reflected on the company he serves and unfortunately he as an adult should have thought about this before he acted.

  • OK – Let me roll out this hand grenade:

    To all the self-righteous folks writing in to perform the digital age version of publicly stoning the firefighter… let me ask this:

    Put down the stones. Help the fire chiefs that are reading this to figure out how to draft a policy that will differentiate between what took place in Emmitsburg (something that no doubt needs to be prohibited) from the Walmart video.

    What is the difference? Is it simply because the perpetrator was a firefighter? ie – a firefighter would not be allowed to make the Walmart video? Was it because the subject of the photo was a child? What are the factors we need to think about.

    Again – there is absolutely no need to keep throwing stones. Everyone agrees what happened was wrong. How do we draw the line?

  • Team Jayden

    She was an innocent 5 year old child! All the people on Walmart are adults and can defend themselves as needed. This mother is doing what every mother should; defend /protect her child. From reading the websites the mother “has not exposed” her daughter. We make choices as adults some are right and some are wrong. No one is saying Mr. Fritz should be given the chair. But when we make choices we should be held accountable. Think that is what the family is looking for;for Mr Fritz to be held accountable for his actions instead of the Lake Meade Fire House in PA trying to cover up and protect him. It appears Lake Meade Firehouse is going after innocent citizens instead of making their own accountable.

    • Thanks Team Jayden

      We agree kids should be off limits… but if you can stop the self-righteous anger and help us to better define the parameters of what is and is not acceptable – we will all be better off.

      Where should the line be drawn. Agreed – kids are number one. No need to debate that one here. Are there other categories…?

      Maybe the Walmart photos themselves should be considered objectionable because the people involved apparently have mental, psychological, or perhaps substance abuse issues? A mentally retarded adult (depending on the severity) may not have the ability to defend himself. Why limit it to children?

      Without being able to define the line through a policy, how do we prohibit it… and how do we punish folks who go too far? Telling firefighters who risk their lives on a daily basis to just “play like nice young men out there” will not cut it. We need to have a rule that provides as clear a line as possible as to what is and is not acceptable.

      I am not defending the firefighter or his department – I have no idea what is going on there with regards to going after innocent citizens – nor do I want to debate it here. If you want to debate it (did the FD try to punish the family, was the FD justified, not justified, etc. etc. etc.) find another blog.

      What I care about is figuring out what we can do to help fire chiefs out there draw a clear line between acceptable and unacceptable social media behavior.

      If we cannot do that… how do we prevent this from happening again?

  • Mom of 3

    Great point Curt…Where DO we draw the line? Call me crazy…but I think it should go without saying, (especially if you have kids of your own) you NEVER EVER take a photo of someone elses child! EVER!!! I also believe that those who are public servants in our communities, should be held to a higher standard of behavior, ACROSS THE BOARD! Not just in public but in everything they do. The Lake Meade Fire and Rescue Department would have NEVER been brought into any of this if Mr. Fritz had not stated to Mrs. Myers that he was using this as a “training tool” for his co-firefighters.

    Keeping up with the times and the amount of Cyber-Media attention everything is subject to, all entities large and small need to have policies in place. It’s sad, but necessary. Our children deserve to be protected from people like this. They are not able to defend themselves. But you’re right…why limit it to children? Why are these people allowed to take photos of anyone anywhere and post them to the internet without permission? Am I subjecting myself to this everytime I leave me house? Do I need to be observant at my doctors office or my nearest urgent care facility? Is someone waiting to see me sick, miserable and in my sweats with mis-matched socks so they can take pics of me and post them to the internet for me to be made fun of? Its sad that one would have to even think of these things!

    I do believe lines should be drawn. I do believe policies should be in place. And I do believe that there should be laws protecting our children!

    • Thanks Mom of 3

      I write alot of policies for fire departments and I am struggling with how exactly to word the policy to address this issue.

      Sure we can try to enforce a “conduct unbecoming” charge… but to me… that is not the way to handle it.

      If this act is so outrageous – and I think we all agree it is – we ought to be able to clearly define where the line should be.

      The fact that we cannot… makes we wonder.

  • Lisa Craiger

    Let me start by saying…I dont judge the mother for what she did to protect her daughter… This should be about a man 1 man doing something horriable to her daughter. His dept didnt ask him to drag them into his ignorance. I would love to see a law passed I would love to see bullying stop but face facts…any picture that is posted weather it be a adult or child that could intentionally hurt somebodey is wrong

  • Lisa Craiger

    I honestly think she is going in the right direction but when people post negative comments weather its her or not on that dept fb was wrong and like this guys ignorant mistake reflecting on the entire station 1 rude comment 1 ignorant post from a person that is associated with likes the page of justice for Jayden is I believe hurting what she is doing her goal from what I understand is to education on what happened and help so it doesn’t happen again. You know maybe just maybe the mother needs to say to everyone….Stop….Stop posting negative from all parties…..stop bringing the name of the dept up because it wasn’t the dept it was one man but start….teaching your child right from wrong because education starts at home. The mother didn’t ask for any of this…She like her daughter was a victim of this cruel joke….But move past the man move past the dept let all that go and work on change…you cant change the past but you can change the future!

    • ABC123

      Lisa why are you so worried for everyone to find out his name or that he worked for Lake Meade Fire Dept in PA??

  • Mom of 3

    I again believe that when you are the “VICE PRESIDENT” of a fire department and you put on their uniform or clothing, you are representing that department. He was wearing Company 26 attire at the WellSpan center when he took photos of that little girl. I don’t think its too much to ask for the department to question the type of “VP” they have. There has to be a Code of Conduct within the department. And you’re right…there should be laws protecting our children from this.

  • Catdog

    Curt the article that you wrote regarding this is excellent.When or if you right a policy regarding this could you please share it with us? Not only do children need protected but adults as well.

  • Lisa Craiger

    I dont care who the man is I dont care what dept he works for dont know him and thankful I dont know him…my point is I do support the Myers.  I think its a great thing…I do not want Justice for Jayden to be associated with some of the things that their supporters are saying..because after all its no diffrent than that fire dept being brought up every chance they can be because of what this guy did.  I though Justice for Jayden was a positive thing….a great thing!  When this first started it was all about where does he work, what does he do, where is  the number of contact  where he does work, (which I am sure the Myers were ticked and rightfully so) and then it seemed like Ms. Myers took a look at the bigger picture of how much this could help not just her daughter but all the other children being bullied on the internet.  My point is supporter or not supporter…let what happened go….work on making sure it never happens again.  Make this a positive like it seems to be what she is doing not brining out all the negative…its beating a dead horse..whats done is done cant change it but lets protect the next child and support her and help her take this to the top


    • Lisa

      I appreciate your comments – but the point of this thread is to discuss the fact that there needs to be a line drawn between acceptable and not-acceptable behavior – to use an analogy – between what occurred with Jayden and the Walmart video phenemonon.

      Where is the line? How do we draw the line if we cannot describe it? Telling us what the firefighter did was wrong over and over and over and over and over doesn't help us. We know that what he did was wrong.

      Is the Walmart video over the line? Is it only over the line if a firefighter were to do it?

      We have identified photos of kids as one example of a bright line rule that we could incorporate into our policies. Is that it?


  • Joe from fairfield


    Why do you need a line? I mean think about what you're saying here. You need someone to tell you clearly what is wrong and what isn't? If you are the one writing policies for fire departments you shouldn't need a hand book to tell you that this guy has no business what so ever being  in a leadership position in his community. This is kind of the problem with volunteer fire departments. Anyone can join and in a case like this this guy is the vice president of the organization and most likely because he is close friends/ family with other leaders in the organization.

    As well NO this isn't just about fire fighters. There are allot of volunteer and proffessional positions out there where this behavior would not be tolerated and the person would have lost his/ her proffessional job over.


    Now onto the people of walmart statements. I'm not sure if you believe this or not but not everything on the internet is REAL. In other words I'm willing to bet that in many cases these pictures are staged. If you also notice in many of the pictures the people are actually posing for the pictures. Which in some sense should tell you they gave consent to  have their picture taken. The other thing you also notice is that these people are adults and made a consience decision to go out into public the way they were photgraphed. This is about a 5 year old girl. She can't controll how she is dressed or what hair cut she has. THAT SIR IS THE DIFFERNCE!

    • Joe

      I have thought long and hard about what I am saying here… probably a bit longer than you have… SIR…

      If I can summarize your point – people should know where the line is.

      Of course they should… people should know not to speed… but they don't so we have speed limits… people should know not to drive while impaired… but they don't so we have BAL limits… Need I continue? SIR

      These are lines that need to be drawn… The use of social media is no different.

      As for me needing a "book" to tell me something is wrong – I take it you have never been sued in federal court for violating someone's First Amendment Rights. That is one of the consequences awaiting a fire chief or fire department that through incompetence drawns a line that is too restrictive. How about being sued for intentional infliction of severe emotional distress because your department has no policy and one of your genius firefighters pulls a stunt like we just saw in Emmitsburg – but while on duty…. again, need I continue? SIR

      The fire service has enough morons in leadership positions who provide virtually no proactive leadership to their personnel… they simply wait til after someone screws up and then jump on the band wagon to criticize, discipline or even terminate the member. That is not leadership.

      We need leaders who are willing to explore where the lines need to be drawn… to think this stuff through, develop sound balanced policies, train personnel on them, and then have the courage to enforce the rules.

      Pretending "everyone" knows where the line is… or should know where the line is… is absurd. That SIR – was the entire point of my post.




    • Catherine Blair

      Bullshit. I reserve the right to go out dressed as horribly as I want and if I didn't get arrested for it then I probably don't deserve any punishment.  And this means, since I don't apparently deserve any punishment, than I don't deserve to be humilated in public by having my photo posted online for anyone to laugh at.  Also I would hope my child would have the right to wear as many non name brand clothing in the school hallways without being harassed by the "in crowd". everyday. But I know that is a little too much to ask for as adults apparently still seem to think it's cool(and even funny ) to do it to each other. So apparently human evolution isn' t quite there yet. Shame.


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