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Carol Todd holds a photograph of her late daughter Amanda Todd in Port Coquitlam, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)
Carol Todd holds a photograph of her late daughter Amanda Todd in Port Coquitlam, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The problem with the term ‘cyberbullying’ Add to ...

“How do you catch it all?” asks Carol Todd, the mother of British Columbia teen Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after posting a candid YouTube video that explained what she had suffered as a cyber-abuse victim. “What do you tell a person who’s been told to hang themselves and that the rope will be provided?”

Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, does not think that cyberbullying is the right word. She would rather use the term “harassment” to describe what happened to her daughter. “She became the target, and once that happens it basically tears you down to the core of your being. In a time when you are forming who you are as a person, the social destruction of your very being is at stake.”

Carol Todd echoes the sentiment. “This is about character defamation and social assassination,” she says. “I’d call it cyber-harassment.”

A faceless attack

Despite the criticism, the term’s inventor, Bill Besley, insists on its relevance. “I know I’m not from Oxford; I know how academics drone about the phrase and how it maybe not be useful, but it’s important to use it,” says Mr. Belsey, who came up with the term by combining “cyberpunk” – coined by Vancouver novelist and futurist William Gibson – with “bullying” to convey the emergence of this faceless attack around 15 years ago.

In most ways, he says, online abuse is similar to bullying in that it involves people, power and relationships. But technology, he adds, is an amplifier of what’s good and bad about humanity.

“When we give kids cellphones we are giving them access to the most powerful tools known to mankind,” says Mr. Belsey, who remains a noted expert in the field. “They can overthrow governments. We as adults need to get our heads around the fact that there is no hiding from this. There are real-life consequences to our actions online.”

But other experts fear that criminalizing the behaviour may have the unintended consequence of perpetuating more anti-social behaviour. “More kids end up in both roles,” says Faye Mishna, dean of the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “It’s very important to understand that.”

One study from Alberta showed that one-third of students who had cyberbullied had also been victims of it – and both share difficulties with emotions, concentration and getting along with other people, as well as not feeling safe at school. Does punishing these kids make things better, or worse? How do police distinguish between the predators and the preyed upon?

Photo-sharing has its own blurred lines. One target of Ottawa’s new criminalization plan is the distribution of sexual images without the subjects’ consent. But among teens, “consent” is defined with some promiscuity. A recent study found that approximately 40 per cent of teens admitted to receiving a potentially compromising selfie (a self-portrait taken on a cellphone or computer), and more than 25 per cent said that they had then forwarded it to someone else. That means the chances of unwanted dissemination are rising. In that same study, one-third of teens stated that they didn’t think about the legal ramifications or consequences of their actions.

Like other jurisdictions, Ottawa will meet resistance if it equates all photo dissemination to the dissemination of child pornography. A 16-year-old girl from Saanich, B.C., faces charges of possession and distribution of child pornography after she allegedly sent out nude pictures of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Her lawyer is challenging the charges, saying they are unconstitutional, and that the legislation was aimed at pedophiles, not children.

“If the same conduct was perpetrated by adults, it wouldn’t be child pornography,” Victoria-based lawyer Christopher Mackie says.

The equivalence also speaks to a deeper problem of criminalization: intent. There are varying degrees of it. Some kids deliberately set out to do harm, though they may have no sense of how much harm they are inflicting. Others may do it out of peer pressure. Others harm victims inadvertently by posting a photo or video they didn’t realize would cause pain.

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