Reducing cyber-bullying’s impact on children’s lives
By Chris Chipello
UNICEF this week issued a major report examining the dangers children face online, and the most effective ways for parents and policy makers to deal with those threats.
The new report comes on the heels of two teen suicides, in eastern Quebec and in Ottawa, that have prompted a proposed new anti-bullying law in Ontario and led some to call for a review of anti-bullying programs in Quebec schools.
Prof. Shaheen Shariff of the Dept. of Integrated Studies in Education has been among the pioneers of academic research on cyber-bullying. Earlier this year, her research team at McGill launched www.definetheline.ca, a website designed to define and discourage cyber-bullying, while encouraging socially responsible digital citizenship.
She has since been appointed to the board of directors of Kids Help Phone, a national, 24-hour online and phone counseling service for kids across Canada.
UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre in Italy – which led the just-released study – recently mandated Shariff to work on a new concept paper that will provide a global overview of cyber-bullying and the use of digital media, and examine public policy and legal responses.
Shariff discussed this week’s UNICEF report and the recent tragedies in Quebec and Ontario with the Reporter.
Bullying among kids is nothing new. What’s different about cyber-bullying?
Cyber-bullying is just a different aspect, a different form [of bullying]. It’s still rooted in discrimination – homophobia, sexism, racism. The difference online is that that you’ve got a whole generation of “digital natives” – people growing up immersed in digital media – ranging from five to 28 or 30 years old. And because it’s become such a common form of communication, people are no longer distinguishing as much between public and private spaces. The problem that we’re finding with young people now is that they’re not able to tell the difference between a joke that is funny in the sense of entertainment, and when such expression crosses the line to harming others. One aspect of bullying is that it dehumanizes the person at the receiving end. And online it’s easier to dehumanize others, because you’re not face to face.
So what can parents or teachers do?
Where we need to intervene is in helping young people become more legally literate. Where do they [need to] stop? When are they beginning to hurt somebody? With all the new legislation coming in, they could stand to have a criminal record for the rest of their lives if they don’t understand where teasing crosses over to criminal harassment or where sexting can bring charges of distribution of child pornography.
How widespread is cyber-bullying?
The problem is fairly widespread. Where media tend to sensationalize it is in creating the sense that the Internet is out of control and needs to be reigned in immediately. That creates a sense of moral panic among educators and parents, and that’s when the advocacy groups call for this kind of legislation. Cyber-bullying is an extension of bullying. It does allow for opportunities for more perpetrators and bystanders and cyber-voyeurs – that is one aspect that is a concern.
The other aspect is that the victim can be re-victimized every time the information is posted, saved, retrieved and passed on. A gang rape in Maple Ridge, B.C., last year was posted online and went viral. The only way police could stop it was by saying it was distribution of child pornography. In another case, in Nanaimo, B.C., a beating of a teenage girl on a school ground was purposely filmed and sent to a well-known rapper in British Columbia, who put words to it and put it on Facebook.
Have the recent tragedies raised other issues?
The other aspect that concerns me is: Are we glorifying suicide? Other kids who are being victimized might see the media coverage online, on Facebook, and start to think, ‘Maybe I’ll get attention if I do this’ – not realizing that suicide is so final. That is a concern.
Do you think the proposed anti-bullying legislation in Ontario will help ease the problem?
[Premier Dalton] McGuinty said the onus will be on schools to make sure they prevent this kind of thing. They will be held accountable. Anyone caught cyber-bullying could be expelled. What I worry about is that the wrong kids will be expelled. People have always broken laws. Just because the laws exists doesn’t mean kids won’t continue to cyber-bully. The ones who are smart about it will get away with it; others will get caught.
The patterns I saw when I was doing my PhD on traditional forms of bullying were that it was generally the kid who retaliated against the bullying that got suspended – when it got to a level where they were so frustrated that they punched the instigator in retaliation. Nine times out of 10, those were the kids who were suspended. The perpetrators got away with it, because often perpetrators are supported by many bystanders and there is a code of silence among them.
The new legislation is not going to teach young people anything. Why are we not focusing on putting more money into educational programs and initiatives that address mental health issues and provide a cocoon of sustainable protective supports within the schools? We need to get teachers, parents, everybody involved in making sure that this does not happen – and when they learn about it happening, that they ensure there’s no way that a young person can will fall through the safety net and commit suicide. Kids need to know consistently from many sources that they have places to go, that they have adults to turn to; and that they have supportive peers to turn to.
You’ve provided an affidavit in the first cyber-bullying case that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear. What’s at stake in that case?
It involves a young girl whose Facebook page was duplicated by someone who posed as her and put sexual verbiage on the Facebook page. She’s 15, and her father wants to sue under private [tort] law. She doesn’t want to be identified, for fear of more cyber-bullying and retaliation. But the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruled she had to disclose her identity. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. I was asked for data and analysis, including research on suicides, to show why a person would want to remain anonymous. I’m told that was a key element of Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case.
What is the significance of this week’s UNICEF report, in your view?
It’s important from the perspective of child protection globally, and in drawing attention to child sexual exploitation, on and off line. That issue urgently needs attention. People need to understand the linkages between physical child exploitation and online exploitation. Debate on whether exploitation is happening off line or online sometimes takes the focus off of the fundamental problem. Children are vulnerable, and we need to ensure that we have sufficient supports to protect them from any form of abuse.
What will your work with UNICEF Innocenti involve?
I’m working with Innocenti on a concept paper that will provide an overview of cyber-bullying and use of digital media as it is understood and responded to at the global level. Industrialized countries obviously have a lot more research, information, policies, legislative responses and case law on cyber-bullying. We’re including that, but we’re also looking at emerging nations like China, India, South Africa, Croatia and South American countries. I’ve got over 20 or 30 countries that we’re looking at.