On the extreme end of the intent spectrum, there is this week’s harrowing story from Florida. Polk County police arrested a 14-year-old after she boasted on FaceBook that she didn’t care that she had bullied Rebecca Ann Sedwick and that the 12-year-old girl had killed herself. (Ms. Sedwick jumped to her death from an abandoned silo.) In this instance, authorities could make a clear case for intent.
But that may be a rarity. One study found that least 60 per cent of “digital natives” (kids born in the Internet era) are less sensitive to, or sometimes cannot distinguish between, harmless jokes or teasing and harmful threats, assaults on privacy and persistent harassment. They don’t even know when they are harassing.
Some cyberbullying victims have preexisting emotional issues, and one of the other debates raging in Canada and elsewhere is how much blame can be assigned to the bully in the case of suicide. Last April, New Zealand enacted a cyberbullying law that makes inciting someone to commit suicide punishable with up to three years in jail. A review board in Ireland, which is considering similar cyberbullying laws, decided to separate the issues of cyberbullying and suicide.
Among professionals, there is a sense of legal fatigue around the issue. What if the federal law contradicts a provincial law? And which overburdened enforcement agency is supposed to patrol the Internet superhighway?
“We should look at cyberbullying in the legal terms we’ve already created,” says Ms. Shariff of McGill. “The spreading of rumours, posting photographs without permission. This could come under tort or criminal laws we already have. We don’t need new ones.”
Experts and parents call for grass-roots approaches. Restorative justice comes up a lot. Teenage brains are still forming, and often kids don’t know what they’re doing. Instead of meting out hard justice, let the bully and bullied sit down together, face-to-face.
One mother of a bullied teen who spoke to The Globe says legal remedies won't help; that police won't take complaints seriously. She says parents should instead focus on role-modeling at home. That’s where kids learn how to bully or be bullied, and parents should be more sensitive to it.
Bill Belsey suggests a concept called “netizenship,” in which teens learn how to become better stewards of their digital footprints. He also says teens can sniff out hypocrisy, whether it comes from parents or public figures. “Maybe politicians should stop those attacks ads,” he said. “That’s bullying if I ever saw it.”