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Leah Parsons, left, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, and her partner Jason Barnes, attend a protest near the Halifax Regional Police headquarters in Halifax on Sunday, April 14, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Leah Parsons, left, mother of Rehtaeh Parsons, and her partner Jason Barnes, attend a protest near the Halifax Regional Police headquarters in Halifax on Sunday, April 14, 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alyssa Wiseman and Samantha Levy

Cyberbullying’s roots are offline, not on a computer screen Add to ...

It’s been a horrible few months, with the senseless deaths of teens Amanda Todd and, more recently, of Rehtaeh Parsons. The devastating deaths of these young women, both victims of cyberbullying, have propelled social media to national attention. Politicians are calling for a legislative crackdown on cyber crime. As members of Define the Line, a research team focused on digital citizenship and cyberbullying, we worry that these proposed laws would be reactive, rather than proactive, responses.

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The issues involved are not new problems. Facebook hasn’t taught kids to bully; Instagram hasn’t glamourized rape culture. What they’ve done is brought to light a deep-rooted societal failure. One need look no farther than the Steubenville case in the U.S., where a teenage girl was raped at a party and then suffered subsequent shaming and abuse online, to understand how online culture acts as an extension of offline acts.

Technology has become society’s scapegoat. While we recognize that technology can be used as a weapon, we also believe that it can be employed as a tool to effect meaningful change. Instead of viewing the Internet as a new and novel problem, we must recognize the ways in which our online selves mimic our offline selves. This is particularly true for children, “digital natives” who have grown up with technological interaction as their norm.

When children “misbehave” online – when they treat others with cruelty, when they violate another’s privacy, when they abuse basic codes of human decency – you can bet that they are doing these things offline as well. Big stick legislation is just a Band-Aid on a problem that needs to be treated systemically, not superficially.

Rather than focusing on punishment after the fact, we need to shift to a more preventative model. As noted in the recent Supreme Court of Canada case A.B. v Bragg Communications Inc. (2012 SCC 46), by the time comments and photos are broadcasted on the Web, most of the harm has already been done. According to Justice Rosalie Abella, “the psychological toxicity” created by cyberbullying can no longer be denied; and lest we try, Rehtaeh Parsons’ death serves to remind us.

While there must be consequences for these egregious cyber wrongs, they will be empty without the preemptive guidance to inform these consequences and give them meaning. We must provide the tools and the resources to steer potential victims and perpetrators away from these situations before they assume these roles before a court of law.

Accountability belongs to society at large; it cannot exist in the vacuum that is cyberspace. If parents, educators, and communities teach children to be responsible citizens, than responsible digital citizenship will naturally follow. We don’t need to get ahead of technology – we need to get ahead of the problem.

Samantha Levy and Alyssa Wiseman are law students at McGill University and research assistants for Define the Line, a research team helping to clarify the blurred lines between cyberbullying and digital citizenship.

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