This is Bullying Awareness Week across the country, and many Canadians are calling for concrete solutions to address the most pernicious forms of bullying in the digital age.
We have been shaken by stories of young people such as Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, whose lives ended in tragedy following acts of cyberbullying through social media and the sharing of deeply embarrassing and compromising digital photos. In the wake of these tragedies, the federal government has already committed in its recent Speech From the Throne to introduce legislation giving law enforcement officials new powers to fight cyberbullying, including a new criminal offence against the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
Cyberbullying, and the more general issue of online reputation management, is a significant social challenge with no easy solutions. While gossip, innuendo and bullying have existed forever, the Internet has dramatically accelerated the velocity and intensity of its consequences. And with a generation of Canadians growing up in a digital world of smartphones, social media and ubiquitous computing, the challenges will only multiply.
Consider for example, the recent arrest of 10 teenage boys in Laval, Que., between the ages of 13 and 15 for the production, possession and distribution of child-pornography, a story that has shocked parents and the public. The boys coerced female classmates to send them nude and sexually graphic photographs. In the spirit of “flirty fun,” and to protect themselves, the girls used “snapchat,” an app that allows photographs to remain on-screen for only a few seconds. However, the boys took screen-shots and distributed the images without consent.
As the government develops a comprehensive approach to cyberbullying, we offer constructive ideas to help address this significant public policy challenge.
The government may wish to consider whether existing Criminal Code provisions – such as those dealing with criminal harassment and child pornography, if appropriately enforced – are already sufficient in stopping the most damaging forms of cyberbullying. While creating a new category of offence may be popular and easy to communicate, it may not actually create any new tools for law enforcement. In the Laval case, parents complained that the 10 boys were treated unreasonably harshly during their arrest, which raises concerns over due process that is especially important when children are involved. Moreover, a new category that is overly broad runs up against free expression guarantees. The definition of intimate images is slippery at best, and there is a fine line between an individual’s right to privacy, and another’s right to free expression.
A broad provision also risks turning every youthful regret into a criminal act. Research suggests that “digital natives” (children and teens growing up immersed in digital media) often fail to realize that impulsive online postings meant as a joke, or made in support of a peer group, could result in legal liability. This generation of youth needs to be sensitized to the fact that posting and forwarding embarrassing photos online can create a dangerous situation for targeted individuals. They need to be reminded that the Internet never forgets, and that the actions we take today could come back to haunt us days, months and even years from now.
We also believe that any new legislation should be but one element of a broader and more comprehensive strategy against cyberbullying. Regulating people’s behaviour with the threat of sanctions alone will not succeed in an age when we have become so used to the casual sharing of so many intimate details of our lives.
It is essential that a comprehensive strategy pay attention to three important aspects of public and professional education. First, educators, parents and youth should be provided with tools that help them assess the potential liability resulting from their online postings, as well as the legal rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. Second, media outlets could be further sensitized on how best to cover cyberbullying stories, especially where suicide cases are concerned. For example, oversensationalized reporting that repeatedly display the deceased’s social media pages provide perpetrators with a sustained platform for continued abuse. Third, it will be important to ensure that law enforcement officials are better apprised of research to help them understand the shifting norms of communication among digital natives and the nuanced complexities of cyberbullying. The law cannot be applied in a vacuum, and judicial decisions will need to be informed by evolving research that broadens our understanding of cyberbullying’s root causes, and how to more effectively address them.
Finally, any concerted effort must be matched by the proper resources. New governmental efforts against cyberbullying will largely be toothless if it is not accompanied by the necessary funding. While budgets remain tight in Ottawa, there should always be room to fund efforts that have the potential to generate such a significant social return.
During Bullying Awareness Week, we urge the federal government to take a comprehensive approach to respond to cyberbullying, especially now that law enforcement and the criminal justice system is already arresting and charging young people for crimes like child pornography which were previously only applied to adults.
Shaheen Shariff, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University and Director of the Define the Line projects on cyberbullying. Kevin Chan is McGill’s Deputy Secretary-General. Both are affiliates of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.