Victim of cyberbullying? Insurance might help

When Chubb executive Christie Alderman asked insurance agents and brokers the best way to help customers, she said "one answer rose right to the top": protect them against the dangers of cyberbullying.

Chubb, known for its high-end property-casualty insurance, already offers a "family protection policy" that covers personal disasters like carjacking, stalking, kidnapping and road rage. Now the company is adding a policy to cover the risks of cyberbullying for both children and adults.

It's indicative of how far-reaching this online epidemic has spread in the age of smartphone-itis and Twitter insults. Even insurance companies have started to recognize it.

Cyberbullying occurs when electronic devices, such as laptops, cell phones or tablets, are used to harass, threaten or intimidate someone, causing them "willful and repeated harm," according to the American Humane Association, which along with championing animal rights also advocates on behalf of children.

With millions of smartphones in use, many in the hands of young people, it happens all too frequently. The Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) says about a quarter of all students surveyed have been cyberbullied, and about 16 percent admit to bullying others online.

A CRC survey of one Midwest middle school found that more than 40 percent of the students were on Facebook or Instagram, 63 percent had their own cell phone and nearly everyone was online. Girls are more likely to be both perpetrators -- and victims.

Therapists say bullying of any kind, including the old fashioned physical abuse, results in low self-esteem, depression and, in severe cases, suicide. It can also turn victims into predators. That's why nearly all school districts now have anti-bullying programs and many health centers have mobile units to answer calls for help.

But cyberbullying is worse than the schoolyard kind. "The impulse for cruelty is the same as it always was, but the weaponry is now far more sophisticated and cuts a wider, much deeper swath," said Jodee Blanco, author of the memoir, Please Stop Laughing at Me.

"When I was a student, they might write a nasty rumor on a piece of notebook paper and pass it around the math class," said Blanco. "Today the same rumor could be on a social network like Facebook where thousands of others will see it and add their own nasty comments."

Blanco saw firsthand just how sophisticated cyberbullies can be when someone posted a fake Facebook page about her in which Blanco allegedly denied everything in her book. Children, who are masters of technology, have now discovered text messages that disappear so they can't be traced.

Chubb's coverage also includes adults who have been victims of cyber-smearing, which Alderman says sometimes takes place after a divorce where both parties have access to each other's electronic devices.

Like most accident policies, the insurance doesn't kick in until the damage is already done, and the amount provided is capped at $60,000. But it can help pay for wrongful termination, false arrest, time off from work, psychiatric care and temporary relocation.

The claimant, of course, has to prove that damage was done and, in the case of a child, probably have a professional acknowledge that the youth was harmed.

The money can also be used to turn the tables on the often anonymous cyberbully with the help of forensic cyber security specialists, who will track him or her down, and a professional public relations campaign that will delete or minimize the online damage. Chubb can suggest resources in these cases.

Chubb's Alderman says she's seen many lawsuits involving the tangled web of cyberbullies and their victims, and the FBI says it is seeing more cyberbullying complaints at its Internet Crime Complaint Center.

For law enforcement, however, such cases typically don't rise to the level of crime unless they lead to suicide. Even then the penalties aren't severe.

The suicide of Phoebe Prince in 2010 led to the prosecution of six teens, but as juveniles they only received community service and a suspended sentence. Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi, who posted a webcam video of his gay roommate on Twitter, served only 20 days in jail.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.