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Defining the Lines on Cyberbullying: Navigating a balance between child protection, privacy, autonomy and informed policy

11 Apr 2012
Shaheen Shariff,
Introduction: The digital age facilitates easy access to information for children and teens ('youth') globally, while creating new challenges for parents, educators, and society. As the use of digital media such as cellular phones and social networking sites proliferates, the lines between free expression, privacy, safety, supervision and regulation are increasingly blurred. Educators, policy-makers and parents concerned about child protection and safety are finding it difficult to navigate a balance that respects children's rights to free expression, autonomy and agency while attempting to reduce the negative impact of on-line harassment and demeaning postings that can socially exclude and isolate individual children and teens from peers, and distract them from learning. Most adults are still grappling with understanding technologies and rarely keep up with their children's on-line proficiencies, whereas elementary school aged children are already immersed in digital media (Boyd & Marwick, 2011). The generation growing up with digital media extends to young adulthood where university undergraduates lead 'digital natives' (Prensky, 2001) in social networking skills. As witnessed recently with the 'Arab Spring', social media can be a powerful tool for mobilizing social and political change. Although most youth use technologies responsibly, the last decade has also uncovered a new form of on-line social cruelty known as 'cyberbullying'. Our preliminary research in countries such as Canada, the United States, Japan, China, India, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and Europe (Shariff, 2009), confirms that the phenomenon of cyberbullying occurs globally.

Key Issues: Cyberbullying among youth has come to the forefront of public policy agendas in many countries because of the unprecedented dilemmas, supervisory and educational challenges it poses for schools, educators, parents, policy-makers, and judicial systems. Here are some of the key concerns: Cyberbullying extends traditional forms of bullying to cyberspace where perpetrators can hide behind screen names with perceived anonymity. Thus, students who have been targeted online return to school wondering which of their classmates (perhaps all) might be perpetrators. The Internet also enables participation by an infinite audience of bystanders and cyber-voyeurs in posting demeaning insults, uttering lewd threats, spreading false rumours, posting jokes and embarrassing videotapes on social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. Students can plan beatings or sexual assault in the physical school context, film the assault and post them online, distributing them to infinite audiences. These actions are often rooted in discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. Breach of trust is also a serious aspect of cyberbullying, particularly when youth engage in 'sexting' of intimate photographs to trusted friends. When the relationship sours, impulsive teens might distribute the videotapes on-line, breaching confidence, ruining reputations and causing significant embarrassment. From a child protection perspective this is troubling for several reasons: The spread of offensive videotapes depicting the bullying and assault, especially rape, is difficult to control without applying distribution of child pornography laws. In North America the police put out media alerts to inform the public that anyone caught with possession of such videotapes will be charged with child pornography. Yet these are not clear cut cases of child pornography, although their viral spread online might attract hard core sexual predators which makes victims more vulnerable. Most youth who are digital natives have difficulty distinguishing between online communications that are funny for the sake of entertainment, and the line crossed when online pranks and teasing result in criminal harassment or criminal charges. Teens have testified in court that they were simply joking and that their primary focus is to make friends laugh and be heard above the noise of the Internet (D.C., 2010; Jubran, 2001). If this is the case, there is an urgent need to raise early awareness in children about the limits of free expression, the impact of their actions on those victimized, and the risk of criminal records. This is especially important given that digital natives also have trouble distinguishing the lines between public and private spaces, often failing to realize that their online expressions could come back and haunt them (Mitchell, 2006).

Impact: Digital natives need to be alerted that when a physical, sexual or verbal assault is filmed and posted online, the individual is re-victimized every time it is viewed, saved, retrieved and redistributed. Educational programs need to 're-humanize' those at the receiving end of the bulling. Teens need to consider that this could be their sister, their mother, brother - someone they love. Our research (Beran, Shariff et al, 2010) found that victimized individuals experience anger, physical injury, anxiety, eating problems and drug use. Children lose interest in learning and grades drop, or teens drop out of school altogether. Some experience extreme eating or sleeping patterns, or modify their appearance in desperate attempts to fit into peer groups. Others give up and stop socializing. Patchin and Hinduja (2010) report that 20 per cent of respondents in their study contemplated suicide (19.7% females and 20.9% males); 19 per cent reported attempting suicide (17.9% of females and 20.2% males). Teachers are not immune to cyberbullying. Increasingly, students joke, gossip and spread rumours about unpopular teachers which can undermine their authority in the classroom and negatively impact their professional reputations, sense of professional worth, and ability to teach. This detracts all children from learning and creates a chilled environment in the classroom.

The Policy Vacuum: The boundaries of legal responsibility and public versus private communication are increasingly blurred in a rapidly evolving digital society that leaves an enormous public policy vacuum. North American courts have placed an onus on schools to provide a learning environment that is free of discrimination and harassment, conducive to learning. Courts have admonished some schools for fostering a 'deliberately dangerous environment' by tacitly condoning bullying (Davis v. Munroe, 1998; Jubran, 2001). Schools can legally intervene if on-line expression substantially or materially interferes with learning, or if the cyberbullying is perpetrated on school computers or websites (Servance, 2003). Most educators remain confused about the extent of their legal responsibilities with schools, arguing that parents are responsible after school hours, while parents argue that when it comes to cyberbullying, irrespective of the time, this remains a school responsibility. Ironically, youth are expected to be accountable for their online behaviour and to know the legal risks. This is not realistic. Emerging legislation often assumes that youth are legally literate. But how can they be when the adults in their lives are largely ill informed in this regard? Few educational programs inform children about the legal risks or encourage legal literacy because few teacher preparation programs address legal issues. Hence, policy makers rightfully grapple with the need to protect vulnerable children and teens from vicious attacks by peers given the increased number of school drop outs and suicides from cyberbullying. Not to be ignored however, is an emerging need to protect legally naive children and teens who engage in cyberbullying for fun, peer pressure, anger or provocation, from overzealous legislation and regulatory policies that fail to take into account their immaturity and lack of knowledge. Despite awareness campaigns and research studies that emphasize the need for contextual factors, many researchers continue to adopt a narrow focus on behaviour and continue labelling perpetrators as 'bullies' without adequate consideration that these children act in context and are influenced by peers, parents, news media and corporate advertising. Popular anti-bullying programs advocate 'walk away from the bullies' or 'tell them to stop'. But how is it possible to walk away from perpetrators who exclude, shun, ostracize and isolate victims in the first place?

Influence of News Media and Corporate Intermediaries: The influence of news media which sensationalize cyberbullying and the tacit condoning of cyberbullying through corporate advertisements and lack of responsibility in removing offensive expression from social networking sites are often overlooked by researchers and policy makers. This results in predominantly reactive policies, legislation and practices that unsuccessfully attempt to filter and contain cyberbullying. Our review of over one hundred media headlines on cyberbullying disclosed the use of news media headings that create moral panic by instilling fear and a false belief in parents and teachers that only legislation will control cyberbullying. Parent lobbies and teachers'unions call for harsher legislation. In Canada, these groups had success. The Canadian Government recently proposed omnibus legislation, Safe Streets and Communities Act, designed to enhance victim safety and increase offender accountability. While there is no question victim safety is paramount, youth and parents should also be concerned about this hard line approach to hold youth accountable. Canadian children and pre-adolescents as young as twelve years of age could be incarcerated under these new laws for engaging in cyberbullying. As noted earlier, the legal assumption is that most digital natives are aware of their legal responsibilities and online liability risks. In fact, with the rapidly shifting online boundaries relating to privacy, defamation, limits of free on-line expression, most adults remain confused; and most legislative and judicial systems have not kept up with rapid development or embraced digital media. Our preliminary international research (Shariff, et al, 2006-09) confirms that digital natives are simply motivated to entertain peers and cyber-voyeurs. For example in China, a teenage student used Photoshop software to modify a picture of his teacher by adding the body of a chicken and various animals and posting it online to make friends laugh. As adolescents grapple with raging hormones, social and sexual awareness their reputations among peers become the most important aspect of their self esteem and confidence. There are so many voices on the Internet that in order to make friends laugh and gain attention, young people are resorting to extreme on-line activities. When a young California teenager with a budding musical career described his eyes as 'golden brown' on his website, this triggered an overwhelming number of homophobic threats and insults from classmates. They testified in court that their comments were meant as jokes and that it was merely a competition between friends about who could launch the worst insults (D.C., 2010; Jubran, 2001).

Towards Educational Solutions: Reactive and punitive suspension policies are rarely effective in reducing traditional bullying, let alone cyberbullying (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006; Jenkins & Boyd, 2008*). Our earlier review of international policies and best practices showed that European countries have spearheaded preventative and educational responses to cyberbullying in the last decade (Shariff, 2009). The Japanese Ministry of Education initiated a review of bullying in schools in 2008 after numerous suicides among youth, and in India technology laws were revisited. Recently Australia (2010) set up a task force to examine the issues, and President Obama instituted federal support for American programs to respond (Calmes, 2010). We know less about the experiences and responses to cyberbullying in developing countries. In this regard, global research to assess the extent, impact and responses to cyberbullying is well overdue. Few law schools or teacher preparation programs include curriculum content that addresses this important area of policy and practice. To that end, we have begun this process through a bi-lingual website www.definetheline.ca / www.definirlafrontiere.ca. Our website informs stakeholders about legal, ethical and educational challenges and dilemmas involved in addressing cyberbullying. If we are to have any success, it is essential to empower children at an early age to make ethical choices when they use digital media; provide learning opportunities for youth to take ownership and develop accountability; foster children's leadership abilities; raise their awareness of the legal risks and devastating impact of cyberbullying on society; and guide them in promoting inclusive and responsible digital citizenship in an increasingly accessible global society.