By Chris Chipello
Anyone with teenaged kids knows how much time they spend connecting with others via computer, cell phones and other online screens.
While the Internet has opened a world of new possibilities for learning and sharing, the unprecedented reach of telecommunications has raised the stakes involved when teasing or joking veer into abusive behaviour such as cyber-bullying. Growing concern about the issue has alarmed parents and school administrators, prompting calls by some for stiffer legal penalties.
“Cyber-bullying, because of its perceived anonymity and infinite on-line audiences, has attracted media spotlight with the advent and increased use of digital and social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter,” said Prof. Shaheen Shariff, who has pioneered research into the phenomenon since she joined McGill’s Faculty of Education eight years ago.
Now, a McGill research team led by Shariff has launched a new website, www.definetheline.ca, to help kids better understand the risks and their responsibilities – and to help parents, teachers and policy makers sort through the issues and implications. It promises to become a valuable resource for educators across North America, providing advice from leading experts in a user-friendly format.
“As the boundaries of legal responsibility become increasingly blurred on-line, we want to bring balance to the issues by clarifying and defining the point at which students’ joking and teasing of peers and teachers on social media might cross the line to become criminal harassment; where gossip and spreading of rumours traverses the invisible boundaries to result in civil liability or cyber-libel; and where ‘sexting’ – a new form of flirting among teenagers – now crosses the line and is sometimes treated by police as ‘child pornography’,” Shariff explained.
The “teens” section of the site includes video vignettes designed to stimulate reflection and discussion in the classroom. One clip, for example, shows a girl who hesitantly snaps and sends a cellphone photo of herself with her blouse unzipped to a friend who promises “this will stay between us.” By the next day, copies of the photo are being shared by classmates throughout the school’s corridors, prompting snickers, sneers and worse.
In another video, a new girl in school quickly becomes the target of malicious gossip among a small clique of girls, one of whom tapes a sign marked “SLUT” to the newcomer’s locker. Other students look on in apparent disapproval, but do nothing to intervene.
At a pre-launch pilot session for the site at Heritage Regional High School in the Montreal suburb of Saint-Hubert, students were struck by the realism of the episodes.
“It really shows how high school is,” said one student. “It’s exactly like that, I’m sure, in every high school.”
That realism is the result of a close collaboration between Shariff’s team of Education and Law graduate research assistants, and the high school students who acted in the videos. Students at FACE, a nearby public high school, performed the vignettes and helped tweak the dialogues to make them sound natural.
The McGill team has also worked with francophone high schools to help create the bilingual site. (The French version is www.definirlafrontiere.ca.)
In creating the site, the research team has undertaken extensive analysis of current legal, educational and policy issues involving emerging and established laws and policies across Canada and the U.S.
The team is also partnering with the Lester B. Pearson School Board, an English-language Quebec school board that earlier this year announced the introduction of a digital citizenship program to educate members of the school community on the responsible use of technology.
“We also want to draw attention to the many positive aspects of digital media,” said Shariff, who is also an Affiliate Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “The Internet and emerging technologies provide numerous opportunities for parents to encourage leadership, trust, insight, integrity, resilience, empowerment, support, inclusion and ethical on-line decisions – all of which result in digital citizenship.”