Cyberbullying is capturing the world's attention. Even our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has adopted the term. I sincerely applaud him for meeting this week with the parents of Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old Nova Scotian who took her own life after an alleged sexual assault and months of online harassment, and for his firm and public stand against bullying. Mr. Harper and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson are also backing new laws against cyberbullying. This is a nice idea but problematic, because we simply don't know all that much about cyberbullying.
At a recent conference of more than 7,000 developmental scientists, a session on cyberbullying revealed that the 40 or so studies on it can't even agree on a basic definition. And the only study that has tried to investigate actual online behaviour is one from Texas where students were given free BlackBerrys under the proviso that all texting data would be anonymously monitored for research purposes. That study will no doubt reveal crucial details, but it's only one study, in one place, with one group of children.
The entire issue of cyberbullying is crying out for better understanding, and it's an issue made urgent by the bodies of suicidal teens it appears to be leaving in its wake.
So what do we know about cyberbullying? Not too much, unfortunately. It appears that many cyberbullies are also bullies outside of the Internet (countering the notion of the online tech savant turning on his/her real-world tormentors). It also appears that cyberbullying is at least as harmful as real-world bullying. Beyond that, we simply don't know much. By their very nature, adolescents tend to be both more tech-savvy than adults and very private, making an understanding of this new form of bullying more challenging for parents, educators and researchers than the more traditional forms of bullying.
I also applaud the government of Nova Scotia for assigning two experts, Debra Pepler and Penny Milton, to study the Parsons case. Dr. Pepler, in particular, is a fabulous choice – the York University professor is perhaps Canada's leading researcher on bullying and is co-founder of PREVNet, the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network. PREVNet is an example of what we need – a national coalition of dozens of researchers, NGOs and public and private groups all working together to understand and solve bullying. It's too bad her appointment is a reaction to a tragedy rather than a proactive effort to prevent a tragedy.
One thing is clear from years of studying bullying: It's very difficult to stop it. Teaching your child not to be an easy victim might help your child, but it means the bully will move on to another victim. New laws are not likely to be the solution, particularly since we already have laws against rape and the sexual exploitation of minors.
What we need from our leaders is a commitment to better understand bullying and bullying prevention. Dollars spent on understanding or on prevention are dollars far better spent than dollars spent on punishment. No amount of money, no laws, no jail terms, will bring back Rehtaeh Parsons or Amanda Todd, the B.C. teen who endured persistent bullying related to a sexually explicit photo of herself posted online. But the right amount of money spent on knowledge, intervention and prevention might well keep other young men and women from joining them.
Tony Volk is an associate professor in the Department of Child and Youth Studies at Brock University.