Cyberbullying in Canada
Unknown to many in Canada, the Criminal Code, which applies to every province and territory in Canada, has approximately 14 different offences or sections that I believe can effectively be used to deal with a variety of forms of digital peer aggression, these include:
Sending False Messages
Mischief to Data
Unauthorized Use Of A Computer
Possession, Distribution and Accessing of Child Pornography
Not only are there potential criminal consequences to bullying, but there are also civil consequences which include defamation and a new legal tort known as seclusion upon intrusion. Also, if a student is being targeted because they are a member of the LBGTQ+ community, in some provinces such as British Columbia, the peer aggressor can also be held accountable under a province’s Human Right Code.
Do I believe that we need new criminal laws here in Canada to deal with the issues of digital peer aggression? No. Do I believe that we can tighten up some of the existing criminal code sections mentioned to make them more congruent with today’s online challenges? Yes. The fact remains, however, that the process to obtain evidence to prove a criminal charge, beyond a reasonable doubt, to a Canadian court of law, is fraught with both legal and administrative process. If government can make this evidentiary collection process smoother through legislative and administrative change, it would allow law enforcement the ability to bring these cases to court in a quicker and more efficient way. We also need to hold Internet Service Providers and mobile providers more accountable to both creating and enforcing appropriate and reasonable Terms of Service specific to this issue, which I believe can be accomplished with proper federal overwatch, legislation, and administrative processes.
It is important to note that laws are not a panacea to stopping digital peer aggression. In my opinion, “education, education, education” is the keystone, but we do need laws for those who become willfully blind to such education and criminally target others both online and offline. I also believe that school-based restorative justice initiatives are far more desirable in many cases of digital peer aggression. The traditional criminal justice system should only be used in the most serious incidents.
The Frequency of Cyberbullying in Canada:
Current research has found that cyberbullying/peer aggression is most often committed by someone the intended target knows, loves, or trusts and is the most frequent threat and challenge that youth face today - both online and offline. Of concern to us as parents and caregivers, recent research has shown that 60% of those targeted do not tell an adult. According to Dr. Hinduja and Dr. Patchin, there are two primary reasons why our youth are not disclosing:
Victims don’t want to be blamed for the behaviour and are often afraid that parents will simply remove the source of the problem (their computer or cell phone), and
Victims feel that adults are ill equipped or unwilling to intervene on their behalf in a calm and rational manner, to resolve the situation. Just recently Dr Hinduja reported out that 17% of youth said that telling a parent was effective, and only 6.2% said an educator's intervention actually worked. As adults we need to do better to help our kids overcome this challenge.
Often in the media, we will hear that cyberbullying has reached “epidemic levels” with youth in Canada; nothing could be further from the truth. In a 2014 Stats Canada study, it was found that between the ages of 15-29 only 17%, or about 1 in 5 students, reported that they had been the target of cyberbullying/cyberstalking. In fact, across North America, the legitimate peer-reviewed research shows that the rates of cyberbullying range between 10%-35%. I believe that what the research shows us is that cyberbullying, although a reality, is not the norm in many schools across Canada. Having said this, one incident is one too many.
How Has the Internet and Social Media Contributed?
Technology: given how our youth have embraced technology in all its forms, it’s not that surprising to see peer aggressors using this same technology to target others. Also, given the viral nature that a message can be sent to a large number of people in a short period of time, it makes such technology a useful launching platform
Anonymity: A peer aggressor can hide behind the anonymity of a computer or cell phone to send a message, thus reducing the chances of being caught.
Disinhibition: Anonymity breeds disinhibition, which frees the peer aggressor to say whatever they want in the digital world that they would never think about saying face-to-face.
Lack of Supervision: Chances are slim-to-none that anyone will see the peer aggressor sending the message, thus decreasing the chance of being identified.
Pop Culture: Teens often take their cues from pop culture; just look at the shows American Dad and Family Guy (popular shows with our youth), where the characters are constantly targeting those who are fat, homosexual, or disabled. Some youth will mimic these behaviours online.
Another big reason why cyberbullying has become more frequent is because the cyberbully does not immediately understand or internalize the very real consequences of their actions until it is too late. As I have stated before, youth live for the here and now and rarely think about the future. This is why it is so important to educate our youth about the harmful consequences of cyberbullying and share with them the story of Ryan Halligan.
There have been several bullycide/cybercide cases reported in the media, both in Canada and the United States. One such case involved a young teenager by the name of Ryan Halligan. Ryan, during the summer before his eighth grade, began an online relationship with a very popular girl from his school. Once school began, however, this girl told Ryan that he was a loser and only wanted to befriend him because she thought it would be funny to pretend to like him and to share their texts with her friends so that she could embarrass him publicly at school. Because of this type of peer aggression, Ryan became depressed and visited websites that promoted suicide. On October 7, 2003, Ryan committed suicide. After his death, Ryan’s father located a message on Ryan’s computer dated October 6th, where he stated that he was considering taking his life the next day. Ryan’s message got a reply from another visitor stating, “It’s about fucking time”.
In a 2007 research study conducted by the Canadian Kids Help Line where they interviewed 2,474 Canadian students:
Over 70% reported being bullied online.
44% reported having bullied someone online at least once.
Just like traditional bullying has led some youth to commit suicide in Canada (Dawn Marie Wesley, 14; Gary Hansen, 16; Travis Sleeve, 16; Hamed Nastoh, 14), there have now been several reported cases of “bullycide/cybercide” (such as Ryan Halligan) that have been directly linked to cyberbullying. Remember when we were younger we heard the phrase, “sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you?” We as parents, educators, and youth need to change this phrase to, “sticks and stones may break your bones, but cyberbullying can hurt, or even kill, others.”
Here’s another very important keystone that was reported out in the 2009 Canadian “Youth Violence Project” specific to cyberbullying:
“Online or offline, the environment when it comes to cyberbullying is almost always school life and not the internet.”