Cyberbullying programs to be evaluated by the federal government

After Canada's first attempt to criminalize cyberbullying was struck down in a Nova Scotia court, the federal government hopes to tackle the problem at its source.

Six-month testing period planned for apps, websites or filters designed to curb online harassment

Government officials are seeking a new way to prevent, report and remove harassing messages from social media. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

If there's a silver bullet that can curb cyberbullying, the Canadian government wants to find it.

The government will launch an evaluation this year into the effectiveness of an "innovative cyberbullying prevention or intervention program," according to documents released Wednesday.

The specifics of the program still aren't known, but the government lists examples of what it's looking for:

  • ReThink: a tool installed on computers that monitors language and shows a pop-up message if a planned post could be considered cyberbullying.
  • StopIt: an app that allows students or employees to flag inappropriate posts and anonymously relay them to school or work administrators.
  • KnowBullying: an app that offers parents tools and suggestions to help them discuss cyberbullying with their kids.

Once the program's framework is set, a contractor will study its effects beginning this fall when students start a new school year.

Prime concern for parents

The government references a study that lists cyberbullying as a top concern for parents.

Graph on parents' top concerns for teens

According to a 2015 survey conducted by Leger on behalf of Primus, 48 per cent of parents are concerned about cyberbullying. That outweighs worries about teen pregnancy (44 per cent), drug use (40 per cent) and alcohol use (38 per cent).

The government's plan to quell cyberbullying at the source is a different tactic from what has previously been attempted.

Cyberbullying laws struck down

Last year, the first attempt to regulate cyberbullying activity was struck down by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, which called it a "colossal failure."

The court ruled that the definition of cyberbullying in the provincial legislation was overly broad and infringed on freedoms of expression.

The federal government has criminal provisions that punish the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. However, the scope of that law does not fully address all online harassment.

The recent advent of apps that patrol social platforms for cyberbullies may help the government fill some of those gaps.

'Consequences of electronic victimization might be more serious'

The government document makes a clear distinction between physical and online bullying.

"Due to the unique features of the electronic environment (i.e. anonymity, lack of emotional cues, rapidity, increased accessibility, and a large audience), the consequences of electronic victimization might be more serious than those for traditional victimization," the document says.

It offers prospective contractors the opportunity to study cyberbullying prevention programs, with a deadline of Feb. 23 to apply.

The study would begin this fall and a final report summarizing the effectiveness of the chosen program is scheduled to be complete by July 2017. 

About the Author

Brett Ruskin

Reporter/Videojournalist

Brett Ruskin is a reporter and videojournalist covering everything from local breaking news to national issues. He's based in Halifax.

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