Back in the early, dial-up days of the Internet, bullying expert Bill Belsey of Cochrane, Alta., noticed a disturbing trend of online abuse among teens and coined a term for it: “cyberbullying.”
The first country to name the problem, Canada will also be among the first to address it in law. Following a ghastly roll call of cyberbullying-related suicides over the past year – Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Todd Loik – the federal government used this week’s Speech from the Throne to announce its intention to fight back.
“The government will introduce legislation giving police and prosecutors new tools to effectively address cyberbullying that involves criminal invasion of privacy, intimidation and personal abuse,” it announced. “This legislation would create a new criminal offence prohibiting the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.”
The parents of victims who lobbied for change will draw some comfort in the measure, as may parents in general: It’s a shrewd enticement for Ottawa to throw into its middle-class loot bag.
But criminologists, psychologists and bullying experts are convinced that this announcement, in the works for almost a year, is more political sop than preventive measure. They also argue that this law-and-order measure could create legal bedlam.
Among their chief concerns is the worry that the term “cyberbullying” is used too loosely and may cast too wide a net. Many provinces have anti-bullying measures in place, and existing criminal and tort laws already deal with some of the related crimes, namely harassment and assault.
Another tricky issue is the law around photo-sharing. There is a roiling debate about whether teens who disseminate images should be charged with the possession of child pornography.
Compounding the skepticism, Ottawa is not talking to some of the country’s foremost experts about the issue. “I haven’t been consulted,” said Shaheen Shariff, a McGill University-based expert in the cyberbullying field who is also an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
Ottawa will be walking on a legal thread, Ms. Shariff said. “This is a question about balancing constitutional law: the right to free expression and the right to safety.”
An imbalance of power
There is general agreement on what constitutes bullying and cyberbullying. Frequency is one factor. The abuse can’t be a one-off: It has to be continuous. “Being called a name once isn’t being bullied,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor of children’s mental health at the University of Ottawa. “Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of bullying behaviour is repetitive.”
There also has to be an imbalance of power: one victim and several perpetrators. Intentionality is another critical qualifier: The abuser needs to show that he or she meant to harm.
The question for legislators, experts say, is how to narrow the scope of the word. And right now, there is concern that “cyberbullying” is too broad a term, legally speaking. “The law doesn’t like ambiguity,” said Justin Patchin, a cyber-criminologist at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “There has to be a cutoff point. Cops can’t get involved in every instance of cyberbullying.”
If Ottawa sticks to that term, police will have their hands full. Several major surveys indicate that as many as one-third of kids have been bullied online. More conservatively, a 2010 study of 33 Toronto middle and high schools reported that 49.5 per cent of students said they had been cyberbullied; a year later, the Nova Scotia cyberbullying Task Force Online Survey found that 60 per cent of students had been bullied.
While the crime is hard to define in a single word, being the victim of cyberbullying is not an ethereal experience. Data suggests that virtual abuse inflicts a more heightened kind of torment than its real-world counterpart. Social media give bullies a vast, virtual playground that is nearly impossible to police. The threats, false rumours and compromising images are dark, digital clouds that follow victims everywhere. Kids often conceal the pain from their parents, who in turn scramble to keep up with all the emotional issues.